Disgust Redux

Thanks again for the great comments. Thanks especially to Michael Bayer, who asked me about Leon Kass, who is indeed one of my major interlocutors in this project.

For those unfamiliar with Kass, he is a well-connected public philosopher who is best known for a defense of what he calls “the wisdom of repugnance” (The New Republic 2 June 1997, pp. 17-26). The primal, visceral, basic response of repugance tells us something, he argues, although repugance or disgust by itself is "not an argument" (WoR, 17). “In crucial cases,” he says, “repugnance is the emotional expression of deep wisdom, beyond reason’s power to fully articulate it” (WoR, 17). In the New Republic piece, Kass goes on to apply this concept to the question of human cloning. I want to go in a different direction, dig deeper really, and attempt to plumb the depths of this prerational, emotional source of  “wisdom,” as well as examine its connection with the formation of the moral imagination, more broadly understood.

My first point: there’s nothing really new about Kass' observation. An awareness of the importance of the pre-rational “passions” goes back at least as far as David Hume. Only within the strict confines of late modern philosophical thought-experiments can ethics mean relying on reason alone. In reality big moral questions are nuanced; they resist easy formulation or reduction. Laws are thought to be a reflection of morality, and yet where do laws come from? Politics of course, which is famously (and properly) understood as a process that makes use of all kinds of irrational, indeed at times unsavory, emotions. We expect the state to apply laws in a rational manner, but one would have to be naïve indeed to think that civil law comes strictly from reason.

The more narrow and important question, however, concerns disgust or repugnance. Its “wisdom” in Kass’ sense, is sort of like Socrates’ daimon in the Apology: it never recommends a course of action, it merely says No. Indeed, the point of the social scientific literature seems to be that of all human emotions, digust is perhaps the strongest and most negative. It seems to point in one direction only.

Herein lies a mistake, however, which I started to explore in my earlier posts about taste.

Disgust may be powerful and apparently primal, but I would suggest that it is only one part of a janus-faced experience. This experience is ambivalent in the strictest sense of the term. Not “wishy-washy” or ambiguous, that is, but pointing in two different  and indeed opposite directions at the same time. Not (just) repulsion, then, but in many cases an even deeper punctual experience of being confronted with an image or object that elicits both attraction/repulsion. This ambivalent experience is what draws some people to gory movies and images of catastrophe and apocalypse. It's what draws ordinarily compassionate people to rubberneck around car accidents. It’s perhaps what inspires cultures to elevate half-rotten food and drink to the status of delicacies. Who would question that the negative energy supplies the fuel for the obsessive focus? We're not talking about a univocal or unidirectional experience here, in other words, but rather a circular one. Within the sphere of morality in particular, it's this circularity that can in some cases become a tightly-focused downward spiral.

One would think that the Christian meditation on human fallenness in particular would provide a good deal of insight into this phenomenon. And in fact it does... but in a way that moves in a direction completely opposed to Kass' vision of the "repugnance of wisdom." I want to explore this in my next post. 

Robert Geroux is a political theorist.

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