Discussing Disgust

By Sanchez, Julian | Reason, July 2004 | Go to article overview

Discussing Disgust


Sanchez, Julian, Reason


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 a bout 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? …

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