Thursday, July 22, 2004

Ashamed of Shame, Disgusted with Disgust

There is an interview here with Martha Nussbaum on her new book, Hiding from Humanity, about the 'pernicious' nature of shame and disgust. She doesn't actually show any perniciousness to them; nothing she says about shame or disgust could not be said about a dozen or more other moral sentiments that (one would hope) are not 'pernicious'; people may appeal to them in discourse in ways with which we do not sympathize - but this is not perniciousness, it is difference of temperament, and is the starting-point for much public reasoning. As with any moral sentiment, if the public discourse remains there, there's something wrong; but disgust and shame, like other things called 'moral sentiments', in general make great starting-points if you are willing to refine them through actual discourse. By advocating that we treat appeals to disgust and shame in public reasoning as somehow pernicious, it seems to me that Nussbaum is arbitrarily cutting out one of the ways in which we develop as a community and a society (and, indeed, as individuals).

Further, it seems to me that her understanding of disgust and shame are wrong. According to Nussbaum, the cognitive content of disgust "involves a shrinking from contamination that is associated with a human desire to be non-animal." I haven't read the book (it's on my reading list), so perhaps I'm missing something about the psychological literature that she claims to be drawing on, but this strikes me as absurd. Compare it to another visceral sentiment, anger, which involves thought about harm. Is it just me, or is it a little bizarre that anger's cognitive content is treated (rightly) as so vague, but disgust's cognitive content is not just "shrinking from contamination" but one that is associated with "a human desire to be non-animal." What human desire to be non-animal? When I feel sick to my stomach with disgust at the thought of (e.g.) the sexual molestation of children, my disgust may well involve something that can be called a "shrinking from contamination," but there seems nothing here that could be identified as the associated "desire to be a non-animal." The fundamental problem here, I think, is that Nussbaum is treating only selective cases of disgust, namely, those that might conceivably fit in with her thesis. When I experience disgust at the sexual molestation of children, this is not a pernicious expression of anxiety about my own animality; it is revulsion, a recoiling or shrinking, at the wrongness of this act, this mistreatment of innocence.

When she then says, "Unlike anger, disgust does not provide the disgusted person with a set of reasons that can be used for the purposes of public argument and public persuasion," she does exactly the same thing: she seems to be taking only crude examples of disgust that fit her thesis and treating them as the norm. Consider her example of anger: "If my child has been murdered and I am angry at that, I can persuade you that you should share those reasons; if you do, you will come to share my outrage." But we can easily construct parallel cases with disgust. If I recoil in disgust at the idea of people raping young children, I can persuade you to share some of the reasons for my disgust, e.g., the gross injustice of it, and, if you do, you will come to share my disgust.

She also goes on to say, "Disgust and shame are inherently hierarchical; they set up ranks and orders of human beings. They are also inherently connected with restrictions on liberty in areas of non-harmful conduct." But neither of these seem any more necessarily connected with disgust and shame (or cordoned off from other moral sentiments, like indignation) than anything else she has said.

Now what I have been pointing out is what I would have thought was the whole point of considering whether disgust and shame were legitimate moral sentiments: moral disgust and shame. Nussbaum proposes two problems with this:

First of all, it is frequently a screen for the more primitive kind of disgust. When people express disgust about a group whom they take to be a source of social decay, citing moral grounds, there is often something much uglier going on....Second, even when the moralized disgust is not a screen for something else, it is ultimately an unproductive social attitude, since its direction is anti-social.

Again the arbitrariness. Soon after she says that anger is constructive. But disgust is often a prelude to anger. And yet disgust, which so naturally leads into anger, is anti-social, but the anger into which it leads is "constructive." Note, too, that in the first problem, she only takes disgust at groups, and not, for instance, disgust at actions. Why does she not take the reasonable parallel, then, and compare it to anger at entire groups? But she always talks about anger at wrongs while talking about disgust at people? This is pure sophistry, as far as I can tell.

I like Nussbaum (her Love's Knowledge is a philosophical joy - too much Henry James, but a delight nonetheless), and I will eventually get around to reading this book, too. But I can't say this summary interview is at all encouraging. If this is the point to which the moral sentiment tradition has fallen, so that someone of Nussbaum's caliber can go about making such elementary missteps, it is in a sad place indeed.

(Thanks to Ektopos for the link.)

Update: Some additional points that need to be added.

1. Thanks to Matthew at Ektopos for the link here. Also, with regard to the psychological issue, he has helpfully pointed out this brief summary of Paul Rozin's work on the evolution of disgust.

2. Check out the comments below; the first is by Julian Sanchez, the interviewer, who responded with a legitimate point & clarification, and the second is by me, adding a brief clarification of what I see as the primary problem with Nussbaum's reasoning, as it is presented in the interview. This last qualification should be emphasized, because it is possible that the problem is corrected or addressed in the book - all the more reason for me to read it and see. When I've done so, I'll post on the subject again. I should also say that agree with Jacob T. Levy about the quality of the interviewing itself: Sanchez "knows his stuff and knows the right questions to ask."

3. There is a sample chapter from the book here. I'm still extremely skeptical, but it whets my appetite. (In particular, I'm not sure her "strong line" against disgust, as formulated in this introductory chapter, shouldn't be taken against just about every other emotion, too. Should any emotion be "the primary basis for rendering an act criminal," even if it does contribute to public discourse about the act? And I still see no way she could make her view that disgust as such, rather than merely certain forms of it, embodies "magical ideas of contamination and impossible aspirations to purity, immortality, and nonanimality," work; nor any way she can have a principled reason for such a sharp division between anger and disgust on this issue. But more when I manage to get my hands on the book (most of the copies of it here are checked out, so we'll see how quickly I can get it)....


10 August 2004: Here is an interesting article on Nussbaum's work on disgust. Her distinction between shame and guilt is a bit too subtle for me, but there are a number of interesting things here that clarify her view.