Sex, Marriage, and Sexuality: August 2013 Archives

Ethics and Disgust

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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.)


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