The wisdom or capriciousness of disgust
September 4, 2004 3:44 PM   Subscribe

Conservatives have been talking about the Wisdom of Disgust for a long time -- most recently with regard to human cloning, but usually, of course, homosexuality. Nussbaum counters at Reason Online. (And Kimball rips her a new one at the New Criterion.)
posted by Tlogmer (12 comments total)
To countervail having had to wade through that disgusting Kimball essay, I'll take off the FPP hat and respond to some of the first link's claims.

Disgust does indeed play an important evolutionary role. But history is far more littered with incorrect disgust than incorrect dismissal of disgust. 100 years ago an overwhelming majority of americans thought interracial marriage should be banned because it was disgusting. For every life-saving instinct disgust is credited with, there's a countervailing absurdity.

Issues like this (and I'd argue that most politics connects in some way) are why I'm liberal: conservatives tend to rely heavily on common sense, and common sense is often wrong. "Disgusting" is not a primary color, immediately observable, inarguable, just there.

Another old conservative theme is rising above animal instincts -- disgust is an animal instinct. It should be subordinate to logic, not the other way around. Like all other instincts, it is to be weighed and considered, not taken as axiomatic truth.
posted by Tlogmer at 3:55 PM on September 4, 2004

They know it works tho--if people find something gross or icky, they'll be more apt to support whoever speaks out against it.
posted by amberglow at 4:23 PM on September 4, 2004

Good stuff, Tlogmer. Here's a related post with complimentary links.
posted by homunculus at 5:03 PM on September 4, 2004

What is interesting is that the first link used two examples of disgust that we would find a bit problematic today. A non-European's disgust at the texture of preserved meat, and a European's disgust at having his food handled by a savage. Darwin's quote reminded me of an anecdote from a once-popular Jaz violinist who told how a hotel in Fort Wayne, IN (a city closer to Detroit than Louisville) broke the dishes they ate off of rather than reuse them. (That documentary had another interesting anecdote about racism that asked, how smart could segregationist whites be in seating blacks in the balcony of dark movie theatres?)

Stephen Pinker argues that the development of dietary taboos has had a huge impact on politics and culture, and has made sharing meals a critical aspect of group bonding.

However, I think that all three links are on the same page in terms of whether we should assume that certain types of disgust are natural. Instead, I think the debate is on whether some forms of disgust should be cultivated.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 5:19 PM on September 4, 2004

That 'ew' feeling (along with some other negative attitudes anyone could point out) is there as a distancing and distribution mechanism between your troop of monkeys and my troop of monkeys, to keep our little gangs from trying to occupy the same territory and eating the resources down to the bare ground. The only problem now is that there's too many of us for the troops to solve the aggro problem just by spreading out. Need something more drastic, like war.
posted by jfuller at 5:39 PM on September 4, 2004

> has made sharing meals a critical aspect of group bonding.

Group bonding, ew.
posted by jfuller at 5:41 PM on September 4, 2004

Instead, I think the debate is on whether some forms of disgust should be cultivated.

So it's all basically circular reasoning, then? "X is wrong, therefore you should be disgusted by it. You're disgusted by X, so you know that it's wrong."
posted by gimonca at 6:35 PM on September 4, 2004

gimonca, not if there's an external mechanism mediating. In other words, it's like Aristotle's idea of habituation in his Ethics. In a nutshell, the idea is that we do not reason out the ethics of our actions as we perform them, for the most part. Most of what we do is habitual. Therefore, it is necessary to cultivate the correct habits. What the "correct" habits are—well, that's a matter of reasoning it out. It's probably not productive to try to eliminate disgust altogether, since it's functional.
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 6:59 PM on September 4, 2004

Interesting, EB. I find Nussbaum's position a little simplistic and I was looking forward to reading Kimball's piece, but I thought it was a sloppy, shallow polemic for the most part. This passage:

Professor Nussbaum begins “Danger to Human Dignity” with the following show-stopper: “The law, most of us would agree, should be society’s protection against prejudice.” Really? I thought “most of us would agree” that the law ought to be society’s protection against crime.

is a distortion worthy of the "sensitive war on terror" flap. Prejudice, by definition, is to judge before - before you have enough information or distance to make a fair judgment. Nussbaum is arguing that the law should, in protecting us from crime, avoid prejudice. Not that its primary function is to protect us from prejudice.

I'd love to read a philosophical defense of disgust as morality that isn't an anti-PC culture-war screed. The Aristotelian stuff seems like a good place to start.
posted by transona5 at 8:50 PM on September 4, 2004

I was just comparing it to Aristotle. I don't think he actually mentions disgust. I have very low regard for Kass's et al rationalizations of the moral incorrectness of the objects of disgust. My point was only that our emotional and habitual responses to things largely govern our actions. That being the case, it's important to "train" them to reflect the values that we believe are correct. For some of us, that would be rationally derived values. It's possible to be desensitized to everything and anything that causes disgust or fear or whatever—but would that be most productive?

I talk about Aristotle's Nichomachean Ethics a lot because it was only in reading it that it finally occured to me that most of what we do is habitual and not the productive of a conscious, rational decision. It becomes obvious that we need to train ourselves (or be trained by others) to do the "right thing" without thinking. Because that's mostly the way we do most things. In this context, it seems to me that our disgust reponses should be properly trained, not abolished.
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 12:16 AM on September 5, 2004

Not that I'm that big of a Pierre Bourdieu fan these days, but the question of habituation is really explored in some detail in his work (though he complicates it a bit by dividing it up into a number of different variables - habitus, field, and capital. As a mild contrast to the Aristotelian notion of habituation, here's a not entirely quick explanation:

Habitus represents the socializing system that serves as the productive bedrock of its own practices. It generally refers to the conditioning of the body in terms of character, style of dress, disposition, state of feeling, etc. In other words, there are largely structural influences on behavior in which certain habits are socially acquired, and then manifested in outlooks, opinions, and embodied phenomena such as deportment, posture, ways of walking, sitting, blowing the nose, and so forth. Bourdieu’s own definition of habitus has changed with time from a consideration of dispositions shaped from lived experience to the following, more complex formulation, and yes, I know this definition looks complex for the sake of complexity, but here it is: "[A] system of durable, transposable dispositions, structured structures, predisposed to function as structuring structures, that is, as principles which generate and organize practices and representations that can be objectively adapted to their outcomes without presupposing a conscious aiming at ends or an express mastery of the operations necessary in order to obtain them.

Habitus is thus historically produced and the producer of what we think of as history. Through education and the other institutions that function as organizers of our collective social experiences, habitus generates the practices and means of its own genesis, kind of like the feedback loops in cybernetic theory. Habitus is both “always already,” to use Althusser’s expression, and always readying, if that makes any sense. For Bourdieu, habitus becomes a means of transcending the traditional bifurcation of sociological thought into objectivist (e.g. the systems theory of Talcott Parsons) and subjectivist (e.g. the symbolic interactionism of Mead and Blumer) camps, allowing for a dialectical integration of agency and structure in which individuals engage in a series of strategies produced by a set of extant dispositions. Habitus as a theory thus accounts for intentional action while limiting the intentionality inherent in the notion of subjectivity. Socialized to believe in the existence of objective limits, individuals adhere to those beliefs as functional, objective limits regardless of their actual substance.

So how do we get to the question of an individual person or subject acting in relation to the question of disgust? Well, Bourdieu believes that the agent acts, but in accordance with his/her predisposed assessment of what's possible. In a sort of socially self-fulfilling phrenology, the individual who believes in the power of the label and witnesses the experiences of those with similar classifications begins to believe that the limits of actions represented in those depictions are in fact objective limits of her own self-potential, or of her own innate sense of what is right or proper (i.e. not disgusting). As a consequence, she develops a sense of “place” or “fitting in” that ascribes to her a comfortability with status and conditions around her. So individuals are, to a certain extent, complicit with the predispositions developed through their habitus, even while being unaware of the effect of habitus upon the scope of their agency. Bourdieu puts it this way "No doubt agents construct their vision of the world. But this construction is carried out under structural constraints". This lack of understanding of these constraints – a metaphorical blindness to habitus that Bourdieu labels “misrecognition” – is due in part to the nearly unconscious way in which habitus operates. Indeed, “the schemes of habitus, the primary forms of classification, owe their specific efficacy to the fact that they function below the level of consciousness and language, beyond the reach of introspective scrutiny or control by the will."

The concept of field describes the scene in which the habitus operates, and so the two terms try to explain habituation a bit more dialectically. Fields function like a network of associations that locate the actual and potential distribution of capital or power among actors in the structure. It is against (and for) the field that practices are measured in anticipation of capital profits, since fields denote the arena for strategy-consumption. Fields, even more so than habitus, can be categorically divided into particular arenas (politics, party, religion, or in this case - the pretense of disgust as an index of common sense correctness), depending upon the type of capital being produced/consumed. Fields are, at their core, arenas for struggle over legitimation – sites of conflict that have the potential to both alter and reify habitus. Like a game of poker in which the players possess varied distributions of chips and cards, the arena represents both the history of the game as produced through habitus and the focus of the upcoming strategies within the structuring structure – chips change hands while the game continues to be played.

The last term that Bourdieu adds to the mix is that of capital, which ties habitus and field together. While Marx viewed capital as the accumulation of labor in the economic sense, Bourdieu’s attempt to distance himself from structural Marxism prompts him to extend the notion of capital to all forms of labor very explicitly, so he wants to include thinking, writing, artistry, philosophizing, education, services, semiotic work, as well as the more traditional notion of manual/productive labor. Consider education as an example. At an early age, individuals are educated in order to invest in them certain cultural consistencies and then tested as a means of measuring and consequently differentiating between their levels of reception. What is measured is cultural capital, the value placed upon the tested knowledge by the society engaged in its production and assessment. Bourdieu views capital in a variety of forms, linked through its transposition between fields. Family wealth (economic capital) allows for superior educational opportunities (cultural capital) which in turn allows for better job opportunities (economic capital) and an elevated capacity to engage in culturally celebrated practices (symbolic capital). In a basic sense, this symbolic capital is present everywhere, since all objects contain a “sign-value” in addition to their use and exchange values (which is what Jean Baudrillard was saying way back in the 60s). These instantiations of capital are then usable in practices, and converted into power. Consequently, those with higher capital have a greater ability to impose their ideology (predisposed as it is by the habitus), or, to use Bourdieu’s words, to engage in "symbolic violence." Symbolic violence, performed through the use of symbolic power, functions to legitimate the other forms of capital/value within the array of fields. Bourdieu again: "every power which manages to impose meanings and to impose them as legitimate by concealing the power relations which are the basis of its force, adds its own specifically symbolic force to those power relations.

Here, the notion of disgust can be seen as one of the attempts to commit symbolic violence by lending a sort of metaphyical cache/capital to the idea of revulsion, even as it covers over how revulsion is indoctrinated through previous exposure to social norms. Hence the weird circular logic noted by gimonca. It's not just that it's an anti-PC culture-war screed, it's that it dresses the whole thing up in clothes stolen from the field of "legitimizing" philosophical language. Pure and utter crap.

And again, while I'm not that big a Bourdieu fan, he does neverthless provide a more nuanced version of Aristotle, or maybe just an updated version, and he can be productive as a resource to understand the sort of macro-level strategies beind deployed in discourses like the ones in question here (i.e. Kimball)
posted by hank_14 at 10:23 AM on September 5, 2004

Nicomachean Ethics, a summary for the hurried. (My last exposure was many years ago in college...)
posted by gimonca at 12:29 PM on September 5, 2004

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