Sunday, July 31, 2016

The "Wisdom" of Repugnance

From guest blogger, Michael.

Though it was only briefly mentioned in class, I'm interested in the 'Wisdom of Repugnance', less so for its moral validity, more so for its implications.

The idea is criticized for being an appeal to emotion, and thus intrinsically fallacious, which is undeniably true.  Disgust is not a good barometer for morality as shown by movements such as slavery, anti-semitism, prohibition, etc..

Yet somewhat contrarily, one has to concede that disgust is relevant not only as an evolutionary mechanic to avoid disease (fear of bugs, sores, rotting food, etc.) but also in some social norms (incest, murder... table etiquette?). These fears or anxieties usually don't merit a logical explanation because they are generally accepted as valid. 

It is when the emotion is "co-opted" morally into non-relevant phenomena such as xenophobia that it loses its validity. Consider the cavemen days where xenophobia would be contributory to survival (other tribes were generally hostile), however, and disgust suddenly seems normative, or at the very least justifiable in a primitive context.

Perhaps we simply live in a time where social change occurs faster than we can adapt our evolutionary intuitions.  But then can any deep-seated intuition really be considered normative? We operate plenty on the "pleasure over pain" idea, as well as the assumption that that warm, tingly feeling indicates moral behavior. What do you guys think?


Lee Troz said...


It seems as though the whole point of us discussing morality is to come to a conclusion as to why we have "disgust" towards certain actions and get a "warm, tingly feeling" from others. Figuring out what is "right" to do in this world is a noble intention, but when you take a step back and look at philosophy as a whole, it seems to boil down to philosophers trying to convince others the correct emotions that they should have towards a subject. I wouldn't be quick to downplay the importance that repugnance and other emotions have in solving moral conflicts.


"Michael" aka Mark said...

Hey Professor Steinberg, just wanted to point out that this is my post. Not that it matters too much probably.

Thanks for the reply. Actually, the post is trying to justify repugnance to an extent, not downplay it. I'm curious how our classmates think about disgust as an indicator of rationality, as emotions are generally perceived as irrational (regardless of whether or not they are valid). I do think discussing morality is more "what" is good or bad, as they are a bit less relativistic than the "why"s.