How Wise Is Repugnance?
By Bryan Caplan
I finally read that instant classic of bioethics, Leon Kass’ “The Wisdom of Repugnance.” While its proximate goal is to urge a ban on human cloning, Kass advances a much more general ethical position:
[R]epugnance is the emotional expression of deep wisdom, beyond reason’s power fully
to articulate it. Can anyone really give an argument fully adequate to the horror
which is father-daughter incest (even with consent), or having sex with animals,
or mutilating a corpse, or eating human flesh, or even just (just!) raping or
murdering another human being? Would anybody’s failure to give full rational justification
for his or her revulsion at these practices make that revulsion ethically suspect?
Given my ethical intuitionism and my view that moral theories should begin with simple concrete cases, you would think that I would have to grant his point. I do not. Our two positions are actually quite different. I think people should calm down and think rationally about ethical questions. Kass almost seems to think that people do their best moralizing when they’re overcome with emotion. Listen to him try to angry up his readers’ blood:
People are repelled by many aspects of human
cloning. They recoil from the prospect of mass production of human beings, with
large clones of look-alikes, compromised in their individuality; the idea of father-son
or mother-daughter twins; the bizarre prospects of a woman giving birth to and
rearing a genetic copy of herself, her spouse or even her deceased father or mother;
the grotesqueness of conceiving a child as an exact replacement for another who
has died; the utilitarian creation of embryonic genetic duplicates of oneself,
to be frozen away or created when necessary, in case of need for homologous tissues
or organs for transplantation; the narcissism of those who would clone themselves
and the arrogance of others who think they know who deserves to be cloned or which
genotype any child-to-be should be thrilled to receive; the Frankensteinian hubris
to create human life and increasingly to control its destiny; man playing God.
But the most amazing sentence in Kass’ whole piece almost flies under radar:
is not an argument; and some of yesterday’s repugnances are today calmly accepted
— though, one must add, not always for the better.
It’s quite an admission. Even if his last clause is dramatic understatement, Kass still acknowledges that calm acceptance of yesterday’s repugnances is sometimes for the better. And on reflection, that list is very long: vaccination, girls, dissection, religious toleration, kissing, C-sections, inter-racial marriage, paying for parking, colonoscopies, amputation of gangrenous tissue (double yuck), sex, Indian food, male nurses… Some of these continue to disgust me – I feel faint if I even look at a syringe. Still, if I think I need a shot, I try to calm down and do what I think – not feel – is the right thing.
My point is not that repugnance is less than 100% reliable. 100% reliability is a silly standard. My point is that repugnance is habitually unreliable. In any case, there are several useful ways to test the wisdom of repugnance. Under what conditions do we justifiably discount repugnance? For starters:
1. When the repugnant thing is unfamiliar. In retrospect, new things often seem repugnant merely because we haven’t experienced them before. When a hero kisses a heroine in a movie, my sons flee in horror. Once they have personal experience, I predict their views will change.
2. When a repugnant thing involves bodily fluids and the inner workings of the human body. There’s no way around it – dissection is gross. Fortunately, some people are rational enough to overcome their natural disgust, secure in the knowledge that (a) the dead feel no pain, and (b) they might learn how to help the living.
3. When other people encourage our repugnance. If a classroom full of kids see you eat a chocolate-covered bug, they’ll all go, “Eeew!” in unison. They’d probably be less judgmental one-on-one.
4. When we easily get used to it. While deliberate exposure tends to reduce our negative emotions about almost anything, we get used to some things much more quickly than others. Why? Because we often learn that, all things considered, it isn’t nearly as bad as we imagined. Think about how completely we’ve adjusted to widespread in vitro fertilization. It’s a repugnant procedure to describe, but when you see happy parents holding their “test-tube baby,” the folly our initial repugnance is plain. Compared to the great good of life, a little yuckiness is nothing.
Frankly, I don’t see how Kass could deny my points. He almost surely agrees that mankind has repeatedly done the right thing by putting repugnance aside. I’m equally sure, though, that he’d insist that we should stick with our gut reaction to human cloning.
Yet notice: Human cloning fits all four criteria for when we should discount our repugnance! It’s totally unfamiliar; it involves bodily fluids and the inner workings of the human body; other people (like Kass himself) encourage our repugnance; and it’s pretty obvious that if clones walked among us, we would get used to them lickety-split. If Kass himself met a clone, I doubt he’d tell him, “You should never have come into existence.” And before long, he probably wouldn’t even say such things to himself.