Ethics and Disgust

| | Comments (1)

Thabiti Anyabwile has come under a lot of criticism from many quarters for his recent post on the gag reflex and Christian opposition to same-sex sexual acts, increasingly called "homosex" of late. [I'm still getting used to that word, because it still feels like an adjective to me (one without its proper ending), but it's a useful word compared with writing out something like "engaging in same-sex sexual activity, so I will use it.]

He has just posted a followup responding to some of the criticisms as well.

As I see it, there are several issues going on here, and I don't think all the participants in the conversation are keeping them straight. There are a number of ways his argument is being misrepresented (and then made fun of in pretty vile ways as a result), but there are also some genuine philosophical difficulties with some of the things he's saying, and I'm not entirely sure I agree with some of the key points. Even so, I think some of the things for which he's being unfairly made fun of by a lot of the opposition seemto me to be largely correct and even relatively obvious, things I'm not sure many people will really want to rid themselves of in their ethical theorizing if they were to think their views through more carefully. So maybe they should refrain from making fun of them, if I'm right about that. I want to work my way to that gradually, however, with a bit of a review of some of the key philosophical moves that have been made about the connection between morality and emotion.

1. Ethics and Emotion

I'm not interested first in the application to homosex, although I will say a few things about that later on. I'm primarily interested in the general strategy of ethical reasoning that involves paying heed to emotions like disgust. A good friend of mine complained on Twitter about the arguments found in the original post, arguing that if we allow disgust to guide our ethical judgments it would mean racists' disgust for racial interaction could generate moral principles against interracial marriage (or more particularly against interracial sex). If disgust shows us anything at all about genuine moral principles, the argument goes, then we have to follow our disgust whatever it leads us to loathe. And people can loathe all sorts of things, in ways that don't at all track genuine moral principles. So we shouldn't rely on our disgust to show us anything about morality.

I think this argument is a mistake. The fact that disgust can be directed against things that are not wrong does not show us that disgust isn't ever a guide to morality. All it shows us is that disgust can be fallible. It can sometimes be directed against things that are not morally wrong. But the same is true of emotionless reason. Emotionless reason presumably led Immanuel Kant to say that lying is always wrong. However, it also has presumably led other philosophers to say that lying, while usually wrong, is sometimes the morally right thing to do. If emotionless reason can generate both principles, then obviously it's fallible. But that doesn't mean it never helps us end up with correct moral principles. It just means it's fallible. It sometimes gets things wrong. We can't trust it 100%. But only a radical skeptic (or someone who grants the radical skeptic far too much, as Rene Descartes did) would claim that a source of information is worthless just because it's not 100% reliable. So I don't think we can rule out a connection between emotion and morality so quickly.

As it happens, recent work in feminist ethics has drawn a lot of attention to attempts to separate emotion from ethical reasoning that have led to a bias against ways of moral reasoning that have tended to be more paradigmatic of women than of men. This bias has had the effect of marginalizing women's ethical reasoning, to the detriment of our overall ethical reasoning. Alison Jaggar has argued that much of the history of ethical theory, which happens to have been done mostly by men, has either treated emotion as something completely isolated from ethical reasoning (as Kant did; emotion cannot be trusted, and the only way to get ethical understanding is to reason in a way that doesn't involve emotion) or as the foundation of all our ethics but a foundation that has no basis in any ethical truth (as David Hume did; there is no ethical truth, because ethics is pure emotion and not reasoned).

Thankfully, Jaggar is wrong about the history of philosophy. Sometimes it's because she misinterprets particular philosophers, such as her reading of the Stoics as being opposed to all emotion, which she can be forgiven for, because, well, they do actually say that. But philosophers are often bad reporters of their own views, and it turns out it's not feelings that the Stoics think we should rid ourselves of. It's bad reasoning, which is how they define emotion. There are plenty of feelings, according to the Stoics, that are perfectly fine to have as long as they're compatible with reasoning well. Certainly the Stoics emphasize reason and say they oppose emotion, but what they oppose isn't what we normally call emotion. The Stoic view on emotion is perfectly compatible with taking what most of us call emotions to be very important for ethics. In fact, having the right feelings, ones compatible with reason, is even crucial for the Stoics. They just won't call those feelings emotions.

Jaggar also seems to me to underemphasize the ways that historical philosophers even put a good deal of effort into organizing their ethical theories around emotions. Plato considered it extremely important for the best possible life that your emotions be engaged in appreciating goodness itself on an emotional level. Aristotle explained some of the most important virtues as simply having the tendency to respond to your circumstances with the right level of emotional response. Augustine's entire account of virtue makes it emotional: virtue is having well-ordered love, whereby you love the best things the most and the less-good things less fully. I myself think all three of them were largely right in these things. Ethics is very much tied up with emotion, and attempts to separate ethics from emotion the way Hume and Kant did are, to my thinking, disastrous.

But several questions remain. It's one thing to say that ethics involves having the right emotions. It's another to say that our emotions are, even sometimes, a good guide to the right ethical principles. We certainly can't just read our ethics off whatever emotions we happen to have. There are plenty of times when my emotional response isn't proportional to an offense that's committed, and I either overreact or underestimate a wrong that's taken place. Or I might not be properly placed to experience the good in something and not be as able to rejoice as I should at some good. There are lots of cases where our emotional judgments are a little off, and there are enough cases, such as with the racist example above, where they are drastically off. Indeed, a Christian who believes in the doctrine of the fall should be the first to recognize that, and that was even crucial for Augustine's ethical theory. Our emotions are often not directed in ways that remotely match up with what's truly good.

2. Ethics, Disgust, and Moral Reasoning

But that doesn't mean there's no role for disgust to play in helping us to see certain ethical truths. Jaggar's feminist treatment of this subject is a good example. She argues that women, having been oppressed for the entirety of recorded history by being told that their emotions are wrong when those emotions contradict how they're being treated, are nevertheless right to pay heed to those emotions, because those emotions are genuine clues to the reality that our socially-constructed narrative is otherwise blinding us to. A member of an oppressed group might have absorbed the narrative that they, as unintelligent slaves, have no rights and need the help of those who are guiding society along to make their decisions for them, but their emotions tell them that the views they've officially adopted on the level of conscious reason are somehow wrong. This can be so for any oppressed or marginalized group, not just women, but she picks out women as a group because women have been told (and less so in outright words in recent years but still conditioned by society in this direction) that they are emotional rather than reasoning beings, that their emotions are less trustworthy than the reasoning that's been identified as paradigmatic of men. I don't agree with everything Jaggar says along these lines, but there's quite a lot of it that strikes me as right about the history of how women are viewed and about some of the elements of how we (men and women today) are still conditioned to view each other and ourselves.

So if Jaggar is right, then there are at least some contexts in which emotions will be even a better guide to truth than the more emotionless reasoning that can easily be simply the reflex of our socially-conditioned environment, our lip service to the biases of our day. Now emotions can do that, too, as evidenced by racist disgust at interracial sex, for example. But all Jaggar is claiming is that sometimes emotions can be a better guide to moral truth than whatever process underlies what we're conditioned to call emotionless reason. And that seems to me to be absolutely right.

Even more, I think there are cases where we can show that our emotion adds something to moral reasoning that you simply cannot get from the emotionless reasoning. A friend of mine who works in aesthetics once gave a case that seems to me to indicate this pretty nicely. Suppose you're eating a kidney and a little bit disgusted at it. This is not moral disgust at all. You just ended up in a situation where you're expected to eat something that you don't like the taste of, and you find it a bit disgusting. But after you've been eating it for a few minutes, you discover that it's a human kidney. Suddenly your level of disgust goes way up. That's not from the taste of it, which didn't change, or from any emotionless reason, because emotionless reason has no emotion and thus by itself wouldn't increase your disgust. Rather, your level of disgust increases because of some moral principle lying behind the disgust, one that upon rational examination would easily stand up. Eating humans is morally worse than eating a kidney from some other animal. It should disgust us, and it does. We should feel greater disgust at eating humans, if we're morally healthy. That doesn't mean that it follows that eating humans is always wrong. It's compatible with this disgust that eating humans who died independently of our actions in a case of survival is morally allowable. Yet it does seem that there's a moral principle lying behind the disgust, one that very few people would question, and it's hard to argue that the disgust isn't a sign of that moral truth. The disgust signifies that truth. Its continuation from generation to generation helps maintain our resistance to cannibalism, and we should be glad for that.

(I should note that this example is a lot like C.S. Lewis' example of finding out that you're eating a deer that was a talking deer in The Silver Chair. The difference, there, however, is that those eating the deer didn't have disgust at all until they found out it was a talking deer. Here there's already disgust at eating the kidney, but it takes on a whole new level of disgust when you learn that it's a human kidney.)

3. Some Particular Cases of Disgust 

So there do seem to be examples where disgust helps us see exactly how bad something is, serving as signs of the wrongness of something. It's also a case that doesn't involve sex, which is nice, because now that I want to return to sex I can say that this isn't just about our attitudes toward sex. But several cases involving sex are relevant. I'll look first at incest and bestiality before returning to homosex.

Incest is a nice case, because very few people think incest of very close familial relations is morally allowable. But it's easy to find a case where moral reasoning apart from the disgust factor can tell us why. Consider a brother and sister pair, both above the age of consent. There's no hierarchical social relationship like in cases of adult-child incest, where it can be argued that one is abusing the other or taking advantage of their inability to consent or inability to resist authority. Even remove the issue of potential offspring by considering a brother-sister couple who are both infertile in a medically-confirmed way. Maybe they've been medically altered. So the worry about producing children with genetic abnormalities doesn't arise. Suppose they even live in a part of the world that hasn't produced any laws against incest, so we can remove the argument that they might still be breaking the law. What, then, makes their consensual sexual activity wrong? It's hard to see, if we have to rely on emotionless reason.

There are those who would argue that our difficulty in finding any reason in this case simply means that any disgust we have at it is misplaced, perhaps there for good in cases where authority-abusing or genetic-abnormality-producing sex between family members would be very bad, but in this case not morally wrong at all. That is a way that someone can go with this. Nevertheless, I don't think it will be a popular response. I've taught this issue in enough ethics classes to see that even most progressive-leaning, tolerant college students simply cannot see this case of forbidden sex as morally allowable. That could be because our innate tendencies toward disgust are overpowering our moral reasoning, or it could be because our moral reasoning apart from emotion is inadequate. I don't see why, given some of the above considerations, we should rule out the latter possibility. I don't have a strong argument for it, but I don't see why we should dismiss it out of hand.

Then take the case of bestiality. It's much harder to argue that consent can be present in sexual encounters between humans and other animals, but I think it's a huge stretch to pretend that it can never be there. Take an example where the non-human animal initiates it. Why couldn't it be very clear that the animal wants to have sex? A human, then, seeing that, could engage in the sexual activity without violating its consent. After all, it showed that it wanted to do so. If we can't, then, provide an easy argument (by emotionless reasoning) that such interspecies sex is wrong, does that mean we must ignore our disgust? Or is it possible that disgust might be cluing us in to something morally-related that our reasoned, emotionless arguments haven't gotten to? I don't know how to rule that out as a possibility, especially on the premise that God has created us and built into our nature certain mechanisms to steer us toward what's right, something most Christians do believe.

Keep in mind the fallibility of any human means of learning the truth about anything, together with the doctrine of the fall, which states that our abilities to come to some important truths are seriously corrupted, and our disgust and enjoyments might therefore might be directed at entirely the wrong things. Christians who think homosex is morally wrong have to think that about at least the objects of sexual desire in cases of someone with same-sex attraction. But I'm not arguing here for any particular view about which things we ought to be attracted to and ought not to be attracted to or about which kinds of disgust are clues of moral truth and which are not. I'm simply making the point that it's not entirely weird for a Christian to think disgust about something might be a clue to moral truth, especially if they also believe in the Bible and think the Bible teaches that homosex is wrong. Those coming from secular framework will obviously not share all of these commitments, but those who share some of these Christian commitments have been making fun of Thabiti Anyabwile's argument in ways that strike me as patently unfair, and it's been hard for me to keep seeing such nasty comments that strike me as not even getting his point, offering objections that misrepresent what he's saying in pretty drastic ways. Some of the misrepresentations are helped a little with his followup post, which clarified some things he doesn't hold that they've taken him to hold, but I didn't think it addressed some of the key philosophical points about the very framework of his post that has seemed to me to be coming under fire for reasons that miss some key philosophical moves and ignore important philosophical work involving emotions and ethics.

4. Some Further Reservations About the Overall Argument

I do want to say a couple things about the original argument of the post that I have hesitations about.

First, it's very clear to me that his overall argument isn't going to move most people coming from a secular framework. It's much harder to argue that there's any moral significance to disgust or any other emotions if you don't have any assumptions about a creator designing us with abilities that, when functioning properly, will point to good and bad in our environment and in our behavior by providing emotions that direct us rightly. At best, you will have Humeans who will think that emotions lead us to the ethical views we do have but who think there's nothing significant about which views we happen to have, because there's nothing morally deep about any of them.

Or many will agree with Kant on this particular point, arguing as my friend on Twitter did that emotions, or least disgust, should never give us any reason to accept any moral principle whatsoever. I've tried to explain why that's going too far, even on secular principles, with the theistic assumptions only coming in at the end of my discussion, but I think it would be very hard to explain why the particular examples involving sexual activity might be cases where emotion should guide us without a notion of proper functioning coming from a designer. Evolution's purposes, otherwise, are illusions. It just consists of processes that happen to lead us to survival and reproductive fitness, which don't give us any reason to think that there's anything morally good about those purposes and therefore of our emotional responses as guides to ethical principles. But of course that line of reasoning goes too far in the other direction, because the same could be said of our reasoning abilities apart from emotion. There's no reason to trust them either if we recognize that they too are the product of blind processes that do not have moral good in mind. They might happen to lead reliably to truth in certain cases, but do we have any strong reason to favor them over anything else in figuring out what's morally true? So I have problems with this approach, even on naturalistic premises, but those problems don't stop a lot of people from taking that approach, and they won't be very moved by drawing attention to disgust-evoking features of any action.

There are also problems with expanding this argument even to all cases of homosex. The argument deals with same-sex acts between men, particularly anal sex. Psychologists have shown pretty decisively that most heterosexual men are not turned off by female-female sex but are actually turned on by it more than they are watching men have sex with women. And women don't seem to have the disgust factor for male-male sex acts that men do. They don't get turned on by it if they're heterosexual, but they aren't disgusted by it the way most heterosexual men are. Also, one of the things my friend pointed out on Twitter is that a lot of people (a) in academic circles, in younger generations, and in progressive or liberal-leaning parts of the country or world are simply less disgusted at the idea of two men having sex than people (b) in circles that are more conservative, in older generations, and in segments of the culture more removed from academia. So an argument that political change will be easier to resist by drawing attention to disgust that a lot of people don't have doesn't strike me as a very politically-savvy message. It just ignores large segments of the population who don't share that disgust. I'd much rather spend my time pointing out that the philosophical arguments of one side have been unfairly lampooned as vacuous when there's a lot more to them than most philosophers acknowledge than I would trying to call up an emotional response from people who simply don't have it.

The particular argument about using orifices used to expel waste for unifying acts between husband and wife also has problems. After all, the penis and vagina are both involved in expelling liquid waste. There are far fewer health issues there, of course, but if the argument is purely about waste then it should apply to vaginal heterosex as well. Penile-anal sex really does involve more serious health risks than penile-vaginal sex, so someone could easily use consequence-related arguments that one is worse than the other because it's riskier. But for it to be a moral argument of a stronger sort (not just that it more easily leads to bad consequences but that there's something intrinsically wrong with the act), it needs to involve violating the purposes of those organs. That sort of argument is a lot easier to generate with natural law assumptions, and I haven't seen anyone in this recent discussion saying very much about that (other than to point out that it might be involved lurking beneath the surface).

I would emphasize that such natural law arguments also have to be very careful not to make the mistakes that natural law theories are often accused of making, mistakes that the most careful natural law theorists don't usually make, of course (but that most philosophers today think they all make, because they don't actually read any natural law theorists). You can't frame the argument so that it's based on what merely happens to occur in nature, because all sorts of things happen in nature that are wrong, and all sorts of morally legitimate behavior won't occur in nature. It has to be in terms of natural purposes in nature, which requires an account of proper functioning, such as Aristotle's (who, I emphasize, does not rely on theism for his account, although Thomas Aquinas thinks it falls apart without theism).

But it also can't be just in terms of anything that doesn't suit a natural purpose being wrong. Building houses for shelter doesn't occur in nature, but it's not wrong, because it fulfills natural purposes, such as our continued survival. But a married person having sex with someone other than their spouse could fulfill a natural purpose, the purpose of reproduction. It's not that what suits a natural purpose is automatically right, and everything else is wrong. It's that some things (like murder, stealing, and lying, to take some non-controversial cases) are either always or almost always in violation of natural purposes, and that's what makes them wrong. Any natural law argument against a certain kind of sex act has to involve a theory about what the natural purposes of sex are and why that sex act violates them, and it has to take into account other moral principles that might come into play (such as the natural obligation to be truthful and do what one has promised, the natural purposes of marriage, or the natural purposes of guarding those who can't or don't consent from partaking in activities that would harm them and violate the moral expectation of at least some basic autonomy on such matters).

People of course disagree on what the natural purposes of sex are, and I'm not prepared right now to wade into that issue. But I think a full argument on the health-related issues lying behind disgust at anal sex will have to come from a fully fleshed-out natural law theory. If that can be done, and if there therefore is a moral argument that can lie behind the disgust, then I don't see why the disgust couldn't be a sign of that wrongness. This discussion I've seen over this recent post hasn't brought out those issues, though, and it therefore hasn't really explained why the disgust must be a sign of its wrongness. But I've been trying to argue at the same time that no one has really given a good argument that the disgust can't be a sign of its wrongness. Someone could offer such an argument, but the ones I've seen have not actually done that. They've just argued that some cases of disgust are not good signs of a moral argument. So I don't think either side, in the discussions I've seen of this in the last several days, has done any work at all to resolving what strikes me as the key issue here.

5. A Note About Tone and Bad Faith

So I clearly have my reservations about the arguments in the post, even if I think there's more to his argument than a lot of people have been giving him credit for. But I think those who have responded to him have behaved very poorly, even if some have had good points buried in their rantings.

A lot of the responses have been pretty obviously in bad faith. One post I saw said this was all about him asserting his privilege and power and not about what the post, on the surface, seems to be about. In other words, the claim is that he doesn't care at all about the moral issues that he spent a good deal of time pointing to. The only piece of evidence for this is that he said he was at a meeting of influential people on the left, which he uses to make a case for how opinions have changed. How does that show that he's more interested in power than in moral issues, especially when his main argument is that we need to get back to a particular kind of moral argument about disgust in order to change people's minds on the moral issue? There's no reason to think he cares only about power and is using this issue to consolidate that power. The whole point is that he's on the side of the issue that's losing ground. Someone only concerned with power would simply ignore the issue, not try to emphasize an argument that all these commenters are pointing out is only going to anger and marginalize people with same-sex attraction. So the idea that he'd be doing this purely as a power play is really strange, not to mention assuming the worst when there's a perfectly natural explanation of his motivations that's a lot less unfair. He simply cares about this moral issue and would like to see people come to his way of seeing it, because moral issues are important. If we have the wrong moral views, we more easily end up bad people. And that would be bad. Even if he's wrong on that, it's not fair and very uncharitable to characterize it as a power play.

He's also been accused of being anti-heterosex even, which I think no one should be able to say without first looking at his sermon series this very summer on the Song of Songs, which he completed only a couple weeks before posting his first post on this subject. When people make that sort of claim about Augustine, it's usually because they haven't read him very carefully, but in this case it seems to me that they haven't even checked up on what he thinks at all. It's hard to argue that that's not bad faith of a particularly loathsome sort.

I've also seen claims that he or the Gospel Coalition in general (the site where his blog, where he posted these discussions, is hosted) are now shown to be far more political than about the gospel itself, which just flies in the face of the vast majority of content both at his blog and at the Gospel Coalition site in general. (Just look at the sermons and how fully they cover the entirety of the biblical texts across the canon, and then look at how his much more left-leaning stuff on the George Zimmerman verdict outraged conservatives, while his actual words rarely strayed into anything partisanly political in either this case or that one; he's dealing with moral issues in both cases, and no one should argue that the gospel has no moral implications, even if he's gotten some of them wrong).

So I think many critics have been guilty of morally despicable behavior in response to him, but some of the critics have complained about his tone and emphasis as well. They've said that in this post (or in both posts, some have said since the second one went up) he hasn't emphasized certain aspects that would bring out gospel issues. As far as his post goes, and maybe this is even true of the followup, that may be right to a point. He didn't write a post about how people who believe same-sex attraction is wrongly directed should deal with their struggles along those lines. He didn't write a post about how people who have engaged in homosex behavior should now live if they become convinced that such behavior is wrong. There are a lot of same-sex-attracted Christians in such circumstances. I know several (who I know about; I'm sure I know even more who I don't know about). This post doesn't help them a lot in their situation.

It's also true that he didn't spend a lot of time wading into the thorny questions that a pastoral exploration of this issue would have to get into, such as how you morally evaluate same-sex sexual orientation as an identity if you think homosex is wrong. Are there such things as identity sins, and is identifying as gay a sin? Is identifying as gay even the same thing as merely having same-sex attraction? Should Christians who think homosex is wrong make it clear that they don't think it's morally wrong to have same-sex attraction, and what should they say about someone who identifies as gay but who agrees with them about homosex being wrong? Those are important issues for someone who has developed the views he's developed to think through and have a sense of how to deal with in particular cases when someone comes to him for counseling about these matters or when he might speak about it in a sermon or in a blog post dealing with same-sex attraction on the practical level. This post does do nothing to address those sorts of issues, although he does mention that he has engaged in such activity in one response to a comment on the second post.)

But of course the initial post wasn't dealing with those issues. Does he have an obligation to say something about them, because some reading it are in that difficult position of struggling through questions about whether the very identity that their culture is forming for them is sinful and how to deal with that? Should he talk about forgiveness every time he mentions some activity as sinful? I think a lot of such claims can go way too far, but there is the worry about pastoral sensitivity for people struggling with this issue. I'm not sure I have the right pastoral sensitivity to give an answer to such questions, but I do think it should be pointed out that it's hard to say everything you would want to say about every issue that you have something to say about. The critics on this point should at least recognize that that's a separate subject and that making one point doesn't mean you have no concern about some related but different point. So I hesitate about a lot of the fury some Christians are raising over this, even if I can't entirely dismiss the concern.

Finally, some have said that the post will just inflame those who are already confirmed in the notion that Christians (or theologically-conservative Christians) simply want to stigmatize gay people. Interestingly, he does respond to this point in one of the comments on the second piece, and he clearly affirms that he thinks it would be wrong to do anything to stigmatize gay people. He doesn't think pointing to behavior as wrong or even affirming the disgust that many people have at that behavior will thus stigmatize, but he does think stigmatizing would be wrong. I'm not sure what to say about this, because I think a lot of people have very different ideas about what counts as stigmatizing, and the very different moral views on this question will also color how you see whether something is stigmatizing. But I am glad to see his response that stigmatizing is bad, and I hope some of the critics will treat that in good faith and assume that he really means it,even if they disagree with his analysis of whether his arguments have actually stigmatized.


Very helpful addition to the discussion. Thank you.

Leave a comment


    The Parablemen are: , , and .

    Twitter: @TheParableMan

Recent Comments



Fiction I've Finished Recently

Non-Fiction I've Finished Recently