Does dis­gust mean danger?

The Jewish Chronicle - - LIFE -

YOU HAVE to feel a bit sorry for Martha Nuss­baum. As of this mo­ment, as I start the sec­ond sen­tence of this ar­ti­cle, she has notched up only 57 hon­orary doc­tor­ates — from Is­rael and Canada, Bel­gium and South Africa — a va­ri­ety to im­press a tomato ketchup man­u­fac­turer, but only barely enough to cel­e­brate one a week for a year.

The mul­ti­ply be-robed Pro­fes­sor Nuss­baum, now at the Univer­sity of Chicago, made her name with early work on an­cient Greek ethics. It was schol­arly, orig­i­nal, and showed a stylis­tic el­e­gance rare in academia. She has sub­se­quently writ­ten hun­dreds of books and ar­ti­cles on a vast ar­ray of top­ics, in­clud­ing fas­ci­nat­ing stud­ies of hu­man emo­tions.

Take as an ex­am­ple, Hid­ing from Hu­man­ity, her book about dis­gust, shame and the law.

One ques­tion that en­gages Nuss­baum is whether feel­ings of dis­gust are an ap­pro­pri­ate ba­sis on which to ground law. In the heated de­bates at the time of the de­crim­i­nal­i­sa­tion of ho­mo­sex­u­al­ity in the UK, Lord Devlin be­came the lead­ing le­gal voice op­posed to a change in the law. He claimed that so­ci­ety would dis­in­te­grate if com­mon moral­ity was not ob­served. If, as he put it, the man “on the Clapham om­nibus” found ho­mo­sex­u­al­ity dis­gust­ing, then that was a solid rea­son to ban it.

The Jewish Amer­i­can physi­cian, sci­en­tist and philoso­pher, Leon Kass, has adopted a sim­i­lar stance. Ge­orge W. Bush ap­pointed Kass chair­man of the Pres­i­dent’s Coun­cil on Bioethics. The Coun­cil ex­am­ined, among other things, stem-cell re­search and hu­man cloning. In rec­om­mend­ing where to draw the lim­its of sci­en­tific per­mis­si­bil­ity, Kass pro­posed that we ap­peal to the “wis­dom of re­pug­nance”.

Nuss­baum re­jects the no­tion that re­pug­nance is a re­li­able guide to wis­dom. Her ex­plo­ration of “dis­gust” draws on evo­lu­tion­ary the­ory, psy­cho­anal­y­sis, his­tory, an­thro­pol­ogy and pol­i­tics.

The vis­ceral feel­ing of dis­gust ap­pears to have an evo­lu­tion­ary ba­sis and to be linked to the

Martha Nuss­baum body and to fears of con­tam­i­na­tion and dis­ease: we find fae­ces, blood, vomit and cock­roaches dis­gust­ing. But, as Nuss­baum points out, dis­gust doesn’t al­ways track danger. Some mush­rooms are deadly, but don’t ap­pear dis­gust­ing. A ster­ilised cock­roach in a cap­sule might be per­fectly safe, but no­body (un­less they’re on a game show) would eat one for lunch.

And the per­ni­cious role of dis­gust through­out his­tory — used to marginalise and dis­crim­i­nate against cer­tain groups — should give us pause. Prior to the Rwan­dan geno­cide, Hutu ex­trem­ists re­ferred to the Tutsi as in­yenzi (cock­roaches). Nuss­baum ob­serves how an­ti­semitic forces have for cen­turies, cul­ti­vated dis­gust for Jews, cul­mi­nat­ing in the author of Mein Kampf com­par­ing the “ma­lign in­flu­ence” of Jews to an ab­scess. If you cut into the ab­scess, “you found, like a mag­got in a rot­ting body, of­ten daz­zled by the sud­den light – a kike.”

Nuss­baum’s par­ents were East Coast, wealthy Protes­tants. She’s de­scribed her dom­i­neer­ing fa­ther as a racist who had strong dis­gust an­ten­nae and be­lieved that if an African-Amer­i­can had used a par­tic­u­lar glass to drink from, it was some­how con­tam­i­nated. Af­ter Martha fell in love with a fel­low stu­dent, Alan Nuss­baum, she mar­ried and con­verted to Ju­daism. Her fa­ther dis­ap­proved. She’s since di­vorced, but re­mains com­mit­ted to Re­form Ju­daism and sings in the tem­ple choir. “I was drawn by Re­form Ju­daism’s com­mit­ment to so­cial jus­tice,” she tells the JC. “That com­mit­ment is also at the core of my writ­ings, and be­ing part of a con­gre­ga­tion ded­i­cated to these val­ues (for ex­am­ple, our tem­ple has the largest food gar­den in the US that de­liv­ers fresh pro­duce to the poor) helps sus­tain those com­mit­ments, as well as giv­ing me other in­sights and a com­mu­nity of friends.”

Now aged 69, there are no signs of any slow­ing in pro­duc­tiv­ity. In the mean­time, while I’ve been typ­ing this ar­ti­cle, she’s prob­a­bly been awarded hon­orary doc­tor­ate Num­ber 58.

I was at­tracted to Re­form Ju­daism’s val­ues

David Ed­monds runs www.phi­los­o­phy247. org and co-runs www. phi­los­o­phy­ @ DavidEd­monds100

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