31.5: The Wisdom of Repugnance
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The most sophisticated appeal to emotion to grace the world of academic ethics comes from bioethicist Leon Kass, and is known as the “wisdom of repugnance.” Appealing to a naturalistic account of morality, whereby nature itself is imbued with moral value, Kass argued that disgust is a good moral indicator. Just as repulsion at the smell of rotting food serves as protection against food poisoning, Kass argued that moral repulsion protects us from morally abominable acts. The consequence of this view is, even if we can’t offer a cogent argument against a view, we have license to assume that any practice which makes us uncomfortable is immoral. This argument has been applied fairly broadly, being used to argue against homosexuality, abortion, cloning, and even the legalization of drugs. While repugnance arguments can be very popular, especially among non-academics, we should be very skeptical of the type of argument being made by Kass. We are often disgusted by things we don’t really understand, and had we been raised in a different environment, we likely would have felt differently. It was not that long ago that disgust arguments like Kass suggests we follow were made about interracial marriage and women wearing pants in public. Contrary to Kass’s thinking, we should try to look past our initial emotional reactions and focus on the arguments and reason. It is pretty unlikely that your disgust about something is a reason for others not to do it (and much like a child who thinks they don’t like broccoli, your initial disgust reaction may not even be much of an indicator of what you will end up appreciating).