Mirror of Justice

A blog dedicated to the development of Catholic legal theory.
Affiliated with the Program on Church, State & Society at Notre Dame Law School.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

In Praise of Disgust

Regular MOJ reader Marc DeGirolami (who also attended the Scarpa Conference) has the following contribution in response my recent post regarding Professor Nussbaum's and Professor Stone's remarks regarding same-sex marriage:

I noticed your comment about Professor Nussbaum's comment, late in the day, that the only (or perhaps the best) way to explain opposition to homosexual marriage is by understanding it as a manifestation of disgust or the crude fear of "contamination" by those on the other side of the issue.

 

In reacting to Professor Nussbaum's remarks, you take offense, and I can certainly understand why.  Professor Nussbaum meant the characterization as a denigration -- the claim being that if one is opposed to homosexual marriage, the only conceivable reason must be something as irrational as disgust, since the arguments against homosexual marriage are so weak as not to be taken seriously.

 

But I wonder whether, quite apart from the merits of this particular question, you both are shortchanging the value of disgust.  Disgust, like shame, can be quite worthwhile.  This was essentially the point made in a review of Professor Nussbaum's book, "Hiding From Humanity: Disgust, Shame, and the Law" written a few years back by John Kekes in the publication, Mind.  There are types of behaviors about which we feel disgust for entirely rational reasons -- they richly deserve the feelings of disgust that they engender because they violate very basic social and civilizational norms.  It's entirely appropriate to feel disgusted by a murder, or an act of terrorism, or an act of incest, pedophilia, or bestiality (some of these are examples given by Kekes, to which I would add torture, cruelty and the sadistic humiliation of others, and much other behavior).  Not all feelings of disgust are like this, of course, but it won't do to trot out "disgust" any time you disagree with someone else's position on the question of the day.  The reason that it is unsatisfying to make this move is not that disgust is invariably an irrational reaction and that by leveling the charge of disgust you are failing to treat the other person and his/her views with "respect" (a subject of at times overpowering interest at the conference).  Instead, the "disgust" move doesn't work because disgust may well be quite rational -- indeed, it may be precisely the right thing to feel -- and it remains to explain why it is not so in the given situation.

 

To be clear, I should state that none of this is meant remotely to suggest that one ought to (or that I) feel disgust (or shame) about homosexual marriage.  In point of fact, I emphatically do not.  But I do think that there is a considerable class of cases in which both disgust and shame are precisely the appropriate reaction.  An accusation of disgust in such contexts, even if intended as a slight, should be met with cheerful, even vigorous, assent.

 

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