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In Print: Martha Nussbaum, cooties, and the ethics of disgust

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Nobody wants to drink from a bedpan, even if it's been sterilized. As philosopher Martha Nussbaum sees it, that's the core of the emotion of disgust--the desire to avoid contamination, whether actual contamination is possible or not. Her new book, Hiding From Humanity: Disgust, Shame, and the Law (Princeton University Press), builds on her 2001 tome Upheavals of Thought: The Intelligence of Emotions, in which she argued that emotions are not obstacles to clear thinking, but value judgments essential to it. Now, in Hiding From Humanity, she makes two exceptions to that rule: unlike fear, love, or anger, disgust and shame can easily mislead us.

Most if not all objects of disgust are animal in origin, Nussbaum notes, and people who snack on feces and decaying meat are unlikely to stay healthy and live long, so the capacity to be disgusted does make some evolutionary sense. Disgust may even have psychological survival value by keeping our animal nature out of sight and out of mind. "Perhaps," she writes, "we cannot easily live with too much vivid awareness of the fact that we are made of sticky and oozy substances that will all too soon decay."

Most kids learn disgust during toilet training and soon discover ways to apply it to others--Nussbaum may be the first philosopher in history to refer to "cooties" in her work. She compares the school-yard plight of those unfortunate third graders so afflicted to the historical treatment of women, gays, Jews, and untouchables. By designating some people as disgusting, says Nussbaum, everyone else pretends that they themselves aren't full of blood and snot and flaky skin, or that they aren't really going to die.

Nussbaum thinks this emotion deserves no formal place in a society that seeks to promote the flourishing of all human beings. (Shame has more good points than disgust, and its story is more complicated.) Unlike anger--which comes in response to being hurt or wronged, and which can often contain constructive thoughts as well as incoherent fury--disgust produces nothing intellectually constructive, only a desire to get away. Better to get angry at politicians rather than be disgusted by them--it's more likely to do some good.

In particular, Nussbaum argues that disgust has no place in the laws of a good society. (She's the Ernst Freund Distinguished Service Professor of Law and Ethics at the University of Chicago Law School.) Laws or penalties based on disgust enshrine the idea that those subject to them--such as homosexuals seeking to marry--are contaminants from which we must separate ourselves as from a corpse. (The rationale for imprisoning pedophiles, she'd argue, is the harm they do to their victims, not our disgust at their actions.)

These views place her at odds with U. of C. colleague Leon Kass, whose 1997 essay "The Wisdom of Repugnance" argued that human cloning should be banned because it's disgusting--a feeling that he claims is at least sometimes "the emotional expression of deep wisdom, beyond reason's power to fully articulate." Other thinkers have gone beyond Kass to maintain that the more civilized people become, the more prone they are to disgust.

Nussbaum takes the opposite view, especially in cases where primitive disgust has been displaced onto humans. In a talk last month she observed that children today don't appear to be disgusted by kids with Down syndrome. If she's right, surely that's a sign that we've become more civilized in the past couple of generations, not less?

Nussbaum will read from and discuss Hiding From Humanity at 7:30 PM on Thursday, May 13, at Women and Children First, 5233 N. Clark. It's free; call 773-769-9299.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Dan Dry.

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