The concept of the “wisdom of repugnance”, a phrase first coined by bioethicist Leon Kass, has been much maligned recently. Many critics believe the idea that the “ick factor” should play a role in ethical debate is patently absurd and completely irrational. I disagree and in this three-part series I hope to show that the emotion of disgust not only has a valid role to play in moral decision-making but that human dignity is put in danger when we reject the “deep wisdom” of repugnance.
“In Tierra del Fuego a native touched with his fingers some cold preserved meat which I was eating at our bivouac, and plainly showed utter disgust at its softness; whilst I felt utter disgust at my food being touched by a naked savage, though his hands did not appear dirty.” — Charles Darwin, The Expression of Emotion in Man and Animals
This anecdote helps illustrate that while we may differ about what evokes the response, disgust is one of the few universally shared human emotions. The native was expressing what psychologists call a “core disgust.” Unlike animals, who instinctively seek out certain foods, humans have to learn what to eat and are justifiably cautious about sampling new foods. Since the cold, soft piece of preserved meat had a tactile resemblance to animal feces, the native was understandably disgusted by the thought of eating it. The revulsion was triggered by the idea that “like produces like“; since the preserved meat had many simliarities to feces it might be similarly contaminated.
Darwin’s unease was also based on a variation of the same core disgust. While the native believed that an object (the meat) could be contaminated because of its similarity to another object (feces), Darwin believed the contagion could be spread by contact with the native.
Since this incident was published in “The Expression of Emotions in Man and Animals” four years before Robert Koch proved the germ theory of disease, its unlikely that Darwin understood the connection between dirty hands, microbes, and contamination. More likely he was simply reacting to a pre-rational intuition that belied his scientific understanding.
But where did this emotion come from? Is it possible then that the emotion of disgust was a result of natural selection? Can revulsion be classified as an adaptive mechanism that prevents us from coming into contact with contaminants? Not likely. Why? Because we all start out as babies.
Infants have no concept of disgust. They will, quite literally, put anything into their mouths. While most other animals instinctively avoid contact with certain items, human infants do not. Unable to make a distintion between a piece of food and the “gift” the puppy left on the carpet, they will attempt to eat both.
We can’t, therefore, automatically assume that disgust evolved as a means of biological survival. Since the full range of disgust triggers must be taught, the emotion must be learned. And as with any knowledge that is not inherently in our biological makeup, disgust can be culturally relative and passed on through successive generations.
By this we can conclude that there is such a thing as a “wisdom of repugnance”, at least as far as the “core disgusts”, and particularly as it relates to food. But does the concept have any meaning when applied to the “social functions of disgust?” Before that question can be answered we must first examine the relation between “core disgust” and a concept that psychologists classify as “socio-moral disgust.” That is the issue we will turn to next.
Part 2 – Disgust as a Form of Cognition