From Disgust to Humanity

Leon Kass is a “public intellectual” who was an advisor to President G.W. Bush on bioethics issues like stem cell research. One of Kass’s basic precepts boils down to listening to our gut: when the average person has a deep-seated aversion toward something, that should guide us in policy. Because such practices as stem cell research (using embryos) and cloning do trigger such a gut response, creeping out many people, that’s reason enough to ban them, Kass held. Similar thinking is sometimes applied to issues like gay marriage – in effect, if a majority has a deep-seated aversion toward homosexuality, then it’s okay for society to act accordingly in regard to gays.

Leon Kass

I would point out that in 1930s Germany, there was a widespread deep-seated aversion toward Jews. And in 1950s Mississippi, a deep-seated aversion toward blacks. Such prejudices do not reflect “the better angels of our nature” – or rationality – and are not a sound guide to right and wrong.

Similarly, at one time, the idea of transplanting organs from the dead to the living most definitely creeped people out. And in-vitro fertilization violated many people’s deeply held gut feelings about ethics. Few hold those views now.

We should rely on our brains, not our guts.

My own philosophy is rooted in a precept very different from Kass’s. Its starting point is the Social Contract – fundamentally (as per Thomas Hobbes), people create society to solve the problem of the “war of all against all.” I relinquish my freedom to bash you on the head and steal your food, and you give up your liberty to do it to me. In that limited sense we are less free, but our true freedom is actually enhanced because now we can go about our lives in relative security.

This viewpoint illuminates that “society” exists to serve its individual members; it’s wrong to view individuals as subservient to societal interests (which is the essence of all collectivist philosophies like fascism and communism). We want society to protect us from harm but not otherwise to boss us around.

John Stuart Mill, a far better philosopher

This is the libertarianism of John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty. We own ourselves; we’re not owned by society, participation in which is voluntary. Of course that’s a tacit assumption, but one necessary for human dignity. Society’s purpose is to protect us from harm from each other, and to give us the means to flourish, by living as each freely sees fit.

Thus, if Leon Kass’s gut finds gay sex disgusting, that’s no proper moral basis for societal action. Even if a majority agrees with Kass. Liberty, not disgust, is the proper touchstone.

And, as Mill argued, this view makes for a better society. Conformity to the prejudices of the many is a recipe for stagnation. When, instead, people are free to follow their own paths, society is enriched by the sparkle of diversity and the airing of novel and divergent ideas. That, indeed, is the very thing that has made America such a good society.

(For prompting the thoughts here, I am indebted to Kenneth Krause’s essay in the February 2011 Humanist magazine, discussing Martha Nussbaum’s book, From Disgust to Humanity.)

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3 Responses to “From Disgust to Humanity”

  1. Carter Kammer Says:

    I’d have to check with you here. Which is not something I usually do! I enjoy reading a post that will make people think. Also, thanks for allowing me to comment!

  2. Lee Says:

    I agree that “disgust” is not proper touchstone, but why does “liberty” get all the glory? There are plenty of ideals worth striving for, e.g., in Maslow’s pyramid:

  3. adlkjawdlkjawlgkad alkdjalkjdalwkjd Says:

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