The Wisdom of Repugnance

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The Wisdom of Repugnance
Incision
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Posted Aug 12, 2010 - 8:16 PM:
Subject: The Wisdom of Repugnance
"The Wisdom of Repugnance" is the title of a 1997 article for The New Republic by former chairman of the President's Council on Bioethics, Leon R. Kass, in which Kass claims that feelings of repugnance are a sign that that act is immoral, and that repugnance can be trusted even in the absence of reasoned argument. “In crucial cases,” he says, “repugnance is the emotional expression of deep wisdom, beyond reason's power fully to articulate it.” For instance, “[p]eople are repelled by many aspects of human cloning. They recoil from the prospect of mass production of human beings, with large clones of look-alikes, compromised in their individuality. . . .” He continues:

Leon R. Kass wrote:
Can anyone really give an argument fully adequate to the horror which is father-daughter incest (even with consent), or having sex with animals, or mutilating a corpse, or eating human flesh, or even just (just!) raping or murdering another human being? Would anybody’s failure to give full rational justification for his or her revulsion at these practices make that revulsion ethically suspect? Not at all. On the contrary, we are suspicious of those who think that they can rationalize away our horror, say, by trying to explain the enormity of incest with arguments only about the genetic risks of inbreeding [link].


Kass is certainly right to the extent that murder's wrongness doesn't depend on your ability to argue for murder. But what evidence does Kass offer that revulsion is a sign is immorality? Unfortunately, he offers little, and what he offers is poor. Kass, by my reckoning, offers two arguments in this passage. The first argument seems to go like this: no one can express how horrible (say) bestiality is, and if no one can express how horrible it is, then no one can prove that it's wrong even though we all know it is. But just as you might be able to prove that you're married without being able to describe how wonderful your spouse is, so you might be able to prove that something is wrong without being able to express your horror. His second argument seems to go like this: if people only oppose incest because inbreeding carries genetic risks, then it's unreasonable to oppose incest -- but of course it's reasonable to oppose incest, so people must oppose it for other reasons. This argument goes wrong by conflating causal explanations with justificatory explanations. People may have excellent justifications for opposing incest, but where did they come up with them? Causal explanations answer such questions as “why did these justifications occur to people?” and “how did they catch on?” by positing, for example, that our ancestors who were more adverse to incest tended to have healthier offspring. But there is a gap between facts and values that causal explanations cannot bridge: only justificatory explanations can show why we should prefer not to allow incest. Causal and justificatory explanations don't conflict, therefore: they work together to complete the picture.

Just because Kass's argument is poor, however, doesn't mean his conclusion is false. And I think there may be something to his conclusion. Consider the Wason selection task, a famous task in psychology intended to test people's ability to reason effectively. This task is notable for showing how poorly humans often reason, but it also shows that people often reason correctly in situations involving moral rules. A common version of the Wason selection task runs like this. A subject is shown four cards, each which has a number on one side and a color on the other. The four cards show a three, an eight, red and brown. Now, exactly which of these cards must be turned over to determine whether the following rule is true: if a card has an even number on one side, then it has red on the other?

The correct cards are the eight and brown, but only about 20% of people answer this question correctly in this form. (I got it wrong myself the first time I tried.) That fact is modestly interesting by itself, of course, suggesting as it does a pessimism about humans' ability to perform basic reasoning. Psychologists have performed a twist to the experiment, however, that makes it more relevant to present purposes. Suppose that we changed the task so that people now had to solve a superficially different problem. You are shown four teenagers who may or may not have broken their parents' rule that if they borrow the car, then they must fill the tank with gas. Exactly which of the teenagers would you need to examine, out of one who borrowed the car, one who didn't borrow the car, one who filled the tank, and one who didn't fill the tank? (Here the correct answer is “the one who borrowed the car, and the one who didn't fill the tank.”)

Most people find this task much easier -- in fact, about 76% succeed, according to the University of California, Santa Barbara. This is surprising because both versions are logically identical; it's structurally the same task wearing a different costume. Why is there such a difference? It's not simply because the second task is concrete rather than abstract: when UCSB students were tested with a scenario involving the rule “If you spray lacana tea on your flowers, deer will stay out of your yard,” their accuracy rate sunk to the original 20%. Instead, it seems that humans' ability to draw correct inferences is context-sensitive. In situations involving social rules, contracts and cheating, people do well, even when they couldn't draw the correct conclusion in the abstract.

Perhaps this surprising result can support Kass's wisdom of repugnance. Perhaps when people intuit that there's something wrong with cloning, say, or organ selling, they have drawn a correct conclusion the form of which they could not explain.

Philosopher Martha Nussbaum disagrees. In “Danger to Human Dignity: The Revival of Disgust and Shame in the Law,” a 2004 essay for the Chronicle of Higher Education, Nussbaum notes that disgust has often been used to support actions that most people would now consider immoral. “[W]e observe that throughout history it has been used as a powerful weapon in social efforts to exclude certain groups and persons. . . .Hitler described the Jew as a maggot in a festering abscess, hidden away inside the apparently clean and healthy body of the nation.” The Nazis were disgusted by Jews, but the Jews weren't immoral, declares Nussbaum with an argument by counterexample. Anyone wishing to claim that disgust always entails immorality will have to accede to the argumentum ad Hitlerum here.

But do we need to claim that digust always entails immorality? Kass could admit that disgust doesn't always entail immorality, while still claiming that disgust is a statistically meaningful signal. He briefly nods toward this approach in “The Wisdom of Repugnance,” allowing that “some of yesterday’s repugnances are today calmly accepted -- though, one must add, not always for the better.” But the sheer number of counterexamples suggests that more than a small concession will be required. Many Indians before 1950 were disgusted by contact with “untouchables”; many nineteenth-century Americans were disgusted by the loss of racial “purity” through intermarriage. Nussbaum notes that “[s]imilar disgusting properties are traditionally associated with women. . . .[And] the central locus of disgust in today's United States[ is] male loathing of the male homosexual.” Patricia Cohen, writing for the January 31, 2008 New York Times, adds further examples.

Patricia Cohen wrote:
[. . .I]deas about what is repugnant change all the time. Selling oneself into indentured servitude was once thought permissible, while charging interest on loans was not.

In recent years groups have fought over whether it is acceptable to display and sell art that offends religious sensibilities, like a photograph of a crucifix in urine or a sculpture of Jesus on the cross, made out of chocolate. . . .And last week a woman in Ohio whose ad to sell a horse mistakenly appeared under the heading “Good Things to Eat” in a newspaper’s classified section received dozens of calls, some expressing outrage and others from people interested in turning it into dinner [link].


While Nussbaum and Cohen are still making the same argument by counterexample, there's something to be said for having a lot of counterexamples. If it's that easy to produce that many cases of misguided repugnance, then it's hard to trust repugnance very much.

Given these arguments, it's clear that feelings of disgust certainly don't always entail immorality. Disgust could be a sign of immorality, true, but there's little reason to think so, and the frequency with which repugnance goes wrong is, frankly, disgusting. There is reason, however, to think that people can detect violations of what they believe to be moral rules, even when these same people couldn't form a logical argument to explain what's wrong. Feelings of disgust could be one form these intuitions could take. If this conclusion is correct, it could have significant consequences for ethical thinking. For example, consider utilitarianism, which is view in ethics that “an act is morally right if and only if that act causes 'the greatest happiness for the greatest number' ” (link). One common objection to utilitarianism is that it renders moral knowledge difficult or impossible, since it is difficult or impossible to find out what would cause the greatest happiness for the greatest number. If I'm right that people's ability to make correct inferences from their moral beliefs outstrips their ability to reason for their moral beliefs, then there may be an answer to this objection: it doesn't matter whether there's time for calculation, since utilitarians could often reach the right answers intuitively (if utilitarianism is true!). So maybe we can trust our revulsions to the degree that we can trust our broader moral beliefs. And, maybe, that's what the wisdom of repugnance should really amount to.
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Posted Aug 12, 2010 - 10:19 PM:

I find Kass' argument repugnant.
Incision
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Posted Aug 12, 2010 - 11:00 PM:

Your counterargument is shorter. sticking out tongue
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Posted Aug 12, 2010 - 11:05 PM:

So if I find Catholicism to be repugnant then that makes it immoral? I mean even if I don't have any rational arguments against Catholicism we all know it is wrong because of how it makes us feel. Hot damn, this ethics stuff is easy! grin

His argument is myopic and naive. There is no rational argument against some things and yet we feel repugnance due to our psychological behavior-guiding mechanisms. All of these emotions we feel about certain things are the product of millions of years of evolution in African tribal society and perhaps even before when we were smaller and more furry. They originally served to guide our behavior in the direction of propagating and preserving our genes in the gene pool, that is a big part of the reason why we feel the way we do. But the problem is that while our genes have not changed much, our environment and memes have changed exponentially and we no longer have genes to perfectly match our circumstances, and therefore emotions and sentiments to match them. I don't know about any of you but I don't consider propagating my genes as efficiently as possible to be a very good basis for ethics and I think that people mostly acknowledge that what we really ought to do is what makes our quality of existence all the more splendid. Incest is a downright terrible investment of energy with regards to genetic fitness, as there are indeed many birth defects, and so we feel as if it is gross. Repugnance is a good reason for something to be unethical for oneself to do, but if the only consequence is repugnance and someone doesn't particularly feel that way, then wherein lies the source of immorality? I hope that we can agree that consequences determine what we ought to do, and prospective emotions and quality of experience determine consequences, or at least can't be divorced from some eventuality or manifestation of the consequences in the future. Sister sex isn't a particularly appealing endeavor to me, but what if it will only bring joy and happiness to two adult siblings and birth control (a splendid new meme of ours to sock it to evolutionary tyranny) is used? Now that feels gross to me and likely to most of you, but if the repugnance is only the result of our biology screaming at us not to mate with our siblings and the original consequences are removed via condoms, then wherein lies the immorality so long as the repugnance has dissipated? Am I now compelled to grow up and stop behaving like a school child? I don't like trying to separate morals from consequences and consequences from emotions caused. Anyone who disagrees is immoral for disagreeing with me, because I said so and so did the great transcendental raccoon in the sky. So there.
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Posted Aug 13, 2010 - 12:21 AM:

I think your argument may prove too much, Stabby. It's at best an oversimplification to say that my feelings are the product of millions of years of evolution. Wouldn't it be more accurate to say that my genotype is the product of millions of years of evolution? My feelings, as an expression of this genotype, aren't determined entirely by my genes: they are as much a product of my culture, upbringing and personal overthinking. So my feelings are only partially the product of evolution. With that in mind, it seems that your argument faces a dilemma. Would you say that any faculty that is partially the product of evolution is nonveridical? If not, then your original argument is unsound. If so, then our own beliefs and sense of reason are nonveridical -- but then we don't know that your argument is sound.
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Posted Aug 13, 2010 - 11:07 AM:

They aren't all completely the product, some have been modified by other factors to suit our new world, but all raw emotions (hatred, love, elation, etc) are part of the genotype because of evolution, even if the phenotype (contextual, hatred of bigots, elation at playing a video game) doesn't always make evolutionary sense due to said new world. If we feel repugnance and have absolutely no good rational argument to back it up, then it is the case that our genes are speaking speaking to us about what they would like us to do and the problem with that is that our consciousness' values and our genes' values (if we anthropomorphize genes for utility) are different, and our behavior-guiding mechanisms aren't particularly rational; only our consciousness can make that rational modification. The genes want us to propagate them, we the consciousness want to live well and enjoy life for the sake of the good positive emotonal experiences that we have subverted and made ends in themselves. "No no, don't have sex with your sister, the baby will be deformed!" is all that is communicated and until we make the conscious cognition that "but wait, we have birth control so it doesn't matter" there is no chance to change it and it won't be changed, and even afterwards there may not be a change because it is gross. A better example is "hate that black man, he is an enemy tribesman and if you don't get him first he will get you!", but that is obviously silly and so most people have made the conscious cognition to modify the behavior.

So any great mystical wisdom derived from repugnance is actually just a behavior-guiding mechanisms that attempts to push goals on us that we don't have, and is blind to our modern memes that change circumstances. Therefore, if we can not come up with a rational argument against something besides "eww it's gross", we ought not to fault others for it, even if it being gross to us is reason enough for us not to do it, not a particularly good reason but then again what good reason is there for sister sex? That is my argument, stated more clearly this time.
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Posted Aug 13, 2010 - 12:25 PM:

People find quite a variety of things repugnant. The Ancient Greeks, and Romans, found the idea of wearing trousers repugnant, and so would not wear them even when wearing them made considerable sense (e.g., while posted to Hadrian's wall or somewhere in northen Europe in winter). It seems wise not to engage in conduct you find repugnant, of course; it's not exactly sensible to deliberately make yourself ill, for example. But it seems difficult to claim it's wise because it's moral.
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Posted Aug 20, 2010 - 10:45 PM:

Is disgust similar to repugnance?
An interesting article on the biology of disgust. I am hoping science through MRI's and the like can give us new insights in philosophy, particularly ethics.
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Posted Aug 20, 2010 - 11:32 PM:

No one is born with moral guidelines, it is a learned attribute.
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Posted Aug 26, 2010 - 5:02 AM:

Incision wrote:


So maybe we can trust our revulsions to the degree that we can trust our broader moral beliefs. And, maybe, that's what the wisdom of repugnance should really amount to.


No. Revulsion and disgust are too subjective to be relied on too heavily. There is no wisdom in repugnance.
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