The Politics of Disgust and Humanity:

The American Spectator has a review of Dr. Martha Nussbaum's book From Disgust to Humanity (hat tip for the review to the always-excellent Arts & Letters Daily). The review is not particularly glowing. The reviewer has some good points.

To the consternation of secular liberals, much of this opposition is grounded in religious faith. But no one should exaggerate the intensity of this opposition; most Americans, for instance, do not hate homosexuals. Indeed, it is more reasonable to suppose that most religious opponents of the gay rights movement accept the words commonly attributed to Saint Augustine: "Hate the sin, but love the sinner."...

[S]he asks her readers to think of sexual orientation in the same way that most of us think of religion. That is, we may disagree with a neighbor's religious convictions, but we ought to respect his or her right to worship freely (or not to worship at all). This analogy has some value, but not as much as Nussbaum believes, because there is a fundamental distinction between religious belief and conduct, and the freedom of the latter must be less than that of the former. (So to cite an important Supreme Court ruling, there is no "free exercise" right to ingest peyote as part of a religious ritual.)

Nussbaum, however, briskly moves from "sexual orientation" to "sexual conduct" and wants us to accept them as essentially the same.
I'm not sure the reviewer is entirely fair to Dr. Nussbaum's core argument about the idea of a 'politics of disgust.' What she's really arguing is that feelings of the type broadly called disgust are often purely irrational, and not therefore good reasons for rules. Why not? A minimum standard for 'a good reason' is that it should be based on reason, which by definition isn't purely irrational. Indeed, most modern thinkers would say it should be purely rational -- but I don't think that's right, for as we've discussed, the ancient notion of reason was able to embrace both the true and the beautiful. We'll return to that, as it's highly relevant to this problem.

To give Dr. Nussbaum her due, then, what he characterizes as her "casual use" of the word is actually her point. The feeling of disgust does occur in children learning about sex, and also in India when some castes ponder the untouchables, and also in a wide variety of other cases. Some of this may be purely irrational; other things (like the reaction when seeing a person with a serious deformity) has an underlying reason we can grasp (a revulsion of that type might have helped our ancestors avoid a serious disease), but it is one that is irrelevant or useless in modern life. Furthermore, in acting out of disgust of this type, we are failing to treat those people who are 'untouchable' or afflicted with a deformity with the respect due to human beings.

That far, at least, her argument is surely a reasonable one: indeed, it's an argument which is wholly compatible with what the Judeo-Christian ethos that the reviewer is defending. This very principle is what took saints in to live among lepers.

So what about the true and the beautiful? I think Dr. Nussbaum goes wrong in failing to grasp that 'the Good Life' is about human flourishing; and part of flourishing is in structuring your life in accord with the true and the beautiful. The problem with her approach is that it concludes that we should embrace being disgusted, because that means we are challenging irrationality. A life in which I simply accept being disgusted is not a flourishing life; it's a miserable life.

The right approach is to recognize the beauty that comes from a life lived in love and service. That approach is transformative. It also shows the way that even a purely irrational disgust can be brought under the order of reason -- not, that is, of pure rationality, but of reason of the great and ancient type. The virtue of love and charity transforms disgust into beauty. That life is the good life, the life of a soul that is truly flourishing.

Finally, there are many disgusting things that are disgusting for reasons -- that is, not out of pure irrationality. When we come across such a thing, we may well be right to abhor it. Reason, far from being opposed to such a reaction, may endorse just that.

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