[Note: Commitments at the CBHD bioethics conference prevent me from being able to write any original posts tonight. So in honor of the conference I ‘
In February of 2004, Advocates for Youth, a non-profit group advocating for sex education, joined with the sexual health-oriented Alan Guttmacher Institute to release a report claiming that half of all young Americans will get a sexually transmitted disease by the age of 25. “Given the prevalence of STDs, young people need all the facts, ‘
In his Histories, Herodotus, the first Western historian, relates a curious anecdote about the Persian king Darius. Gathering a group of Greeks who were presently at his court, the king asked them what they would take to eat the dead bodies of their fathers. They replied that no sum of money would entice them to commit such a despicable act. As Herodotus relates the story:
He then sent for certain Indians, of the race called Callatians, men who eat their fathers, and asked them, while the Greeks stood by, and knew by the help of an interpreter all that was said, — ‘
Since the invention of democracy in ancient Greece, it has been a common practice for political opponents to shout down each other, attempting to rebut an argument by drowning out the opposing view. This is a regrettably common feature in political discourse. But not only is this method contrary to reasoned discourse and the free exchange of ideas, it’s almost always ineffective. Sometimes the best way to crush an argument is simply to let its advocates present it for themselves. Instead of shouting them down, it can be more beneficial to get them a megaphone.
A perfect example can be found at The Huffington Post, an embarrassingly overhyped blog launched by conservative-turned-progressive Arianna Huffington. The blog is intended to be a sort of liberal response to the ‘
The following thought experiment is used to explore some basic assumptions currently held in the field of bioethics. As with any such hypothetical scenario, a certain degree of liberty is taken with what is considered within the realm of possibility. Some people may complain that I have stretched outside the normal parameters in order to make a point.
I completely agree.
Unfortunately, we live in an age in which many people consider it ethical to destroy ‘
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 1980, cult-movie director David Lynch released “The Elephant Man,” a film that told the story of John Merrick, a 19th-century Englishman who had the disfiguring congenital disease, Proteous Syndrome. After spending most of his life as a side-show freak, Merrick wanted nothing more in life than to regain his dignity. In the most memorable line of the movie, Merrick cries out in anguish, “ I am not an animal! I am a human being! I…am…a man!”
Ironically, the very emotion that led people to treat Merrick as an animal is one that is peculiarly human. One of the most essential needs of humanity is a recognition of our inherent dignity, which entails separating us from the other species. In the seminal psychological research report “Body, Psyche, and Culture: The Relationship Between Disgust and Morality”, the authors note:
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:
The French writer Vercors begins his novel, ‘
[Note: Since I ‘