Defending the Wisdom of Repugnance:
Part 3 of 3 — Science and the Need for Intellectual Humility

General Bioethics — By on March 4, 2005 at 1:40 am

In 1997, bioethicist Leon Kass wrote an article for The New Republic entitled “The Wisdom of Repugnance” in which he proposed a ban on human cloning. Though the article is rarely read by critics of Dr. Kass, the title lives on as a dismissive summation of the “anti-scientific, pro-religious” view of bioethical debate. The concept, however, is not intended to be an argument but rather a reason why we should question our reasons for continuing further along a morally dubious path:

Revulsion is not an argument; and some of yesterday’s repugnances are today calmly accepted – though, one must add, not always for the better. In crucial cases, however, repugnance 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? Not at all. On the contrary, we are suspicious of those who think that they can rationalize away our horror, say, by trying to explain the enormity of incest with arguments only about the genetic risks of in-breeding.

There is one problem with Kass’ concept. He makes the mistake of believing that everyone has a moral compass that is sufficiently calibrated and in tune with prerational understandings. Certain people, particularly those who have an almost idolatrous view of human reason, will reject this concept outright. Dr. Elizabeth Blackburn, the cell biologist who served on the Bioethics Council, is a prime example of one who would disagree:

Leon Kass has suggested that society should make decisions based on what he calls the “wisdom of repugnance.” I think this is an unreliable kind of wisdom. Repugnance should serve not as a basis for any decision, but rather as a signal for honest, critical examination of what inspired it. In some instances, repugnance may indeed hint at moral qualms that will withstand the rigors of analytical questioning. But it may also simply reflect habit or custom.

Anyone wondering why Blackburn was removed from the President’s Council for Bioethics has to look no further than that quote. While dissenting voices are certainly needed on the council they should be those that espouse a coherent ethical view. Blackburn, however, would reject any ethical argument if it could not be supported by a rationalist foundation. The problem with this approach is not only that it is antithetical to ethical inquiry but it is also harmful to human dignity and liberty.
Blackburn claims that repugnance is an “unreliable kind of wisdom”. Yet it is precisely this form of “wisdom” that helped keep our species alive for thousands of years. As I’ve mentioned before, “core-disgust” inhibited the spread of disease. But prior to the discovery of the germ theory of disease, this “habit or custom” would not have been able to “withstand the rigors of analytical reasoning.” As a scientist, Blackburn would have claimed that the idea of being contaminated by coming into contact with other humans was mere superstition. Yet her lack of both epistemic humility and adequate scientific knowledge would have enabled diseases to spread unhindered.
Unfortunately, Dr. Blackburn is not alone. The lack of humility about what is known and what can be known has become one of the gravest problems of modern science. As Friedrich von Hayek noted:

Ever since the beginning of modern science, the best minds have recognized that ‘the range of acknowledged ignorance will grow with the advance of science.’ Unfortunately, the popular effect of this scientific advance has been a belief, seemingly shared by many scientists, that the range of our ignorance is steadily diminishing and that we can therefore aim at more comprehensive and deliberate control of all human activities. It is for this reason that those intoxicated by the advance of knowledge so often become the enemies of freedom.

The wisdom of core-disgust preceded the knowledge of science by thousands of years and served to protect our bodies from harm. What if a similar wisdom is protecting human dignity? On what grounds do we have for rejecting thousands of years of socio-moral wisdom? Are we to do so based on the dubious principle that scientific knowledge should advance unhindered?
The “wisdom of repugnance” is merely a stop-gap in the onslaught against the degradation of human dignity. That is not to say, however, that it must have the final word in any ethical debate. Like all products of a culture produced by a fallen humanity, it can contain error and be in need of correction. But the process should be taken carefully and the discernment should be based not only on our own limited understanding but on the received wisdom of those who have come before us.
As Kass said, revulsion is not an argument. But in the face of such deep rooted disgust the onus should be on the advocates of change to make their argument for ignoring our “gut instinct.” Those who reject the concept of the “wisdom of repugnance” had also better be prepared with solid arguments against incest, bestiality, necrophilia, and the other moral horrors that lie within this Pandora’s Box. If all ethical arguments must “withstand the rigors of analytical reasoning” then we will have to reject almost all of our moral presupposition in order to meet this standard. Are we prepared to do that in order that science may advance unimpeded?

  • Pete

    As an academic (albeit in the economics field) and as a believer, I particularly appreciated the Von Hayek quote. In my guild, there are two types – those that think they know the answers ex ante, and those with a sense of humulity. THe second group would agree with von Hayek. The first are there mostly so that the second has a group of people that are easy to irritate. Doing so at least provides the occasional amusement – unfortunately, although I’m a believer, I’m still better at afflicting the comfortable than I am at cmforting the afflicted.

  • Boonton

    Blackburn claims that repugnance is an

  • mumon

    Actually, I think it’s pretty easy to make moral arguments against bestiality, incest, necrophilia, etc. independent of how one’s sense of repugnance.
    There are arguments that can be made against human cloning, but I suspect they are somewhat weaker.
    Should we clone animals? A recent issue of Harper’s had an article that cogitated on this fact; given the types of vanity cloning possible for your dead tabby, the writer concludes that there may be an argument for human cloning.
    I tend to reject the argument for human cloning on the basis that it does really nothing tangible to alleviate the suffering of those already born.
    So I don’t need a sense of disgust to see that. It’s really quite simple.

  • Blogotional

    What Disgusts You?

    What would we be capable of if we quit arguing about things that were settled centuries ago and starting working on things that were not?