Ethics and Disgust
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 seem to 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.)
I recently rewatched the 1975 Doctor Who episode "Genesis of the Daleks" by Terry Nation. Some online discussions I looked at about "Genesis of the Daleks" made some interesting, and to my mind obviously false, claims about how it fits (or doesn't) into the overall canonical fictional world of Doctor Who.
One claim in particular claim that caught my interest was the accusation that Terry Nation contradicted some of his earlier Doctor Who episodes about the Daleks in giving the origin of the Daleks in this serial. One discussion pointed out that Nation had made an effort not to contradict his first serial "The Daleks" from 1963, where he establishes the Daleks as creations of a race called the Dals in their war against the Thals. The supposed contradiction comes with "Genesis of the Daleks" when Nation actually shows us this war between the Thals and the race that created the Daleks, and the creator race is not called the Dals but is called The Kaleds.
Here's my problem. This is not a contradiction. A contradiction takes the form 'P and not-P". There is nothing of that form here. What you do have is:
1. The race who created the Daleks at the time of the Daleks' creation called themselves the Kaleds.
2. The Thals also called them the Kaleds at that time.
3. At a much later time, probably many centuries later, after an apocalyptic destruction of all civilization and a loss of a good deal of accurate information about the details of that earlier time, someone speaks of the race that created the Daleks as the Dals.
I'm sorry, but I'm not seeing how any of that makes for an inconsistency. If we were sure the person telling us they were called the Dals was speaking the truth, that would even be difficult to get a contradiction, because it's possible they came to be called the Dals at some time after "Genesis of the Daleks" or that they were called that at some earlier time, and that name came to be the more common one to use again after the apocalypse. But we can't even be sure the Thal telling us this has the right information. Maybe it's just that the wrong name was preserved. There are quite a number of things that could explain how 1-3 might all be true. Terry Nation simply did not contradict his earlier Dalek stories. What he did is use a different name without explaining why different names were used at those two different times, but it's not a contradiction.
I think there's a certain personality type that just likes to find contradictions in everything. A lot of fan criticism of science fiction and fantasy stories exhibits similar problems to the one I've been discussing here. I could point out lots of other examples. That doesn't mean there aren't legitimate criticisms to level against authors. I've criticized J.K. Rowling in print about her concept of changing the past in the third Harry Potter novel, although I did so after pointing out some rather implausible ways of making the story work to avoid the problem I raised. The implausibility there would involve reliable narrators who would know better telling untruths, however, which is more of a stretch than someone centuries after an apocalyptic event getting a name of an extinct civilization wrong or the possibility that the group was actually called by two different names.
How you evaluate such attempts to make canonical worlds coherent in part does depend on how plausible the explanation might be to avoid the contradiction. It's nice for fictional worlds to be coherent. Sometimes that's impossible. Sometimes it involves an implausibility but is possible. And sometimes it's not all that implausible if you just think a little harder to see how things might fit together, when at first they seem not to.
It's hard not to think of critics who like to find contradictions in the Bible when I look at these stories. There are some genuine difficulties in fitting together some parts of the Bible. I've never seen one that guarantees a contradiction, especially when you take into account that inerrantists don't take the current manuscripts to be inerrant but allow for errors in transcription from manuscript to manuscript. But I have seen places where it's not easy to come up with one highly plausible explanation that shows for sure why the apparent contradiction is not a real one. In most of them, there have been several explanations, where not one stands out as the most plausible, and even most of them involve something somewhat unlikely but possible. There's none I know of where I would judge all the explanations as so implausible as to require rational evaluators to think it has to involve two contradictory statements that can't be resolved. But I'm coming from an epistemological standpoint where I think the prior plausibility is relatively high. I consider myself to be in a position where I think I have good reasons for taking the Bible as it presents itself, as God's word, and it follows from that that it's more likely that there is a solution even if I don't know what it is than that there isn't. So I'm going to take the less-plausible-sounding accounts as less certain, but I'm going to be more likely to think that one of them is probably true.
That's one difference with fictional worlds. I don't believe there even are Daleks or Time Lords, never mind that the entire Doctor Who canon is consistent. (I think it certainly isn't coherent when it comes to fundamental questions of time travel, for example.) But someone who thinks God is real and is basically the way God is presented in the Bible is going to place a higher prior probability on there being some resolution to a proposed contradiction than someone who has no prior trust in those documents. And I would argue that someone doing this is right to do so if the prior probability is based on a good epistemic state to begin with. And that makes accepting truth in texts that are hard to fit together much easier to do (and not in a way that undermines rationality, assuming the prior probability itself has a rational grounding.
That assumption of prior probability, of course, is one of the fundamental disputes to begin with, but you can't just assume at the outset that someone who is more willing to trust a set of scriptures is wrong in doing so, and pointing to potential contradictions isn't necessarily going to turn the tide of the conversation unless you first undermine the prior probability. Supposed but not actual contradictions, even if they are difficult to put together, are therefore very weak evidence against the coherence of a worldview when the person who holds that worldview is more sure of it than they are of the irresolvability of the supposed contradiction. That makes for people coming from very different standpoints evaluating the supposed contradictions very differently, and from within their world view each seems to themselves to be right in how they do that. That's something that I think not enough people on either side of such debates can see.
Jeremy Pierce is a philosophy professor, Uber/Lyft driver, and father of five.