From the Chronicle of Higher Education. To read the entire essay, go here.
Martha Nussbaum's book From Disgust to Humanity: Sexual Orientation and Constitutional Law (Oxford University Press, 2010) appears to have been written for a high-school civics course. Implicit already in its title is the idea that disgust is inhuman, or perhaps pre-human, that it is a stage to advance out of on the way to humanity. For Nussbaum it's all very simple: Disgust is immature, and well-adjusted adults should grow out of it.
As an effort to shape law and public policy in the United States, Nussbaum's approach makes sense. But it's a sad fact of public debate in America that words intended to influence public debate must sound like they are intended for adolescents. From Disgust to Humanity is in large part a riposte to the argument made by Leon R. Kass, head of President George W. Bush's President's Council on Bioethics, that disgust (for example, at the thought of anal sex) has its own inherent "wisdom," which may serve as a "natural" basis on which to develop a sexual ethics. Nussbaum argues against Kass, but the two are united by a sort of anthropological obtuseness. He is wrong to suppose that what disgusts us in sexual matters can simply be read off of nature, and that nature writes in the same idiom in all times and places. She, in turn, is wrong to suppose that just because disgust is culturally variable and thus to some extent arbitrary, and because it can result in oppressive social relations, it is therefore somehow inhuman.
I confess I am disgusted by a great many things about people (and about myself, but let's put that aside). I do not believe it is particularly urgent for me to overcome my disgust, even if I recognize that this emotion must remain entirely separate from my thinking about which laws would be most just. I am disgusted by other people's dandruff, facial moles, food stuck in their beards, yet I do not accept that in feeling this way I am judging those people to be subhuman. I take it rather that humanity, while endearing, is also capable of appearing disgusting.
In fact, one great problem with Kass's approach, which Nussbaum does nothing to refute, is that disgust and its various opposites—relish, delectation, delight—seem ever so delicately close to each other, and always ready to slide unawares over to the other side. This is not some abstruse psychoanalytic paradox, but a simple observation of an obvious condition of human bodily experience. The same things that excite our desire most—the naked bodies of other humans, the bright red shell of a boiled lobster, a cigarette glowing in an ashtray—are the things that always, simultaneously, threaten to excite our revulsion. Kass should be suspicious of his "wisdom" regarding the various uses of the anus, lest he find his revulsion crossing over all too suddenly into a very different sort of passion.
Cicero observed that the greatest pleasures are only narrowly separated from disgust. Nussbaum no doubt knows that, even if she prefers in the present work to focus on the Roman orator's more elevated treatment of the concept of humanitas,"a responsiveness to others that prominently included the ability to imagine their experiences." Could it be, though, that Cicero did not consider this responsiveness to the humanity of others as incompatible with being grossed out by them? Such a presumption of compatibility may, in fact, be truer to the spirit of humanitas than any version that results from an effort to isolate this responsiveness in its pure, other-embracing form.
That last point has generally been best understood in the arts; novelists and poets are often much better than theorists at appreciating the complicated ways in which disgust and desire work together, even conspire together, and at appreciating the ways in which this conspiracy, far from being an impediment to our humanity, is constitutive of it.
Rabelais, to cite one extreme example, pounds away with instance after instance of the disgusting ways human beings appear: in gluttony, in bestiality, in massaging one's groin with the downy head of a duck. The giant Gargantua is disgusting, and hilarious: a pair of closely related, perhaps inseparable adjectives. It is hard to imagine how one could operate freely in the humorous mode without courting disgust. Risibility, as the medieval philosophers understood, is a trait found wherever there is humanity. Rabelais courts disgust, but the reader never loses sight of the fact that it is humanity's marvelous, over-the-top disgustingness that is under consideration. In real life, too, the food in the beard would not disgust me if it were on a plate, and that is because the beard is on a human, and it is precisely his humanity I am recognizing when I am disgusted by him.
Nor would I reproach a culture, should one be discovered, that considers food in the beard a fitting tribute to a host after a fine meal. There are a number of historical examples of culinary practices that today seem no less repulsive. For example, French explorers among the Huron in the 17th century found it difficult to enjoy one of the local delicacies: a sort of cornbread, whose batter, before baking, was mixed with saliva in the mouths of the tribe's elder women.
Is that intrinsically disgusting? Well, it might help to recall that, biologically speaking, all cooking is a form of extrasomatic predigestion, beginning a process of breaking down raw food through dicing, boiling, etc., that is subsequently continued by our digestive system. That might explain why communal eating is potentially a source of great disgust. Like sex, it is a sharing of the stuff of life, and who you do it with determines to no small degree who you are. That is also why communal eating is so crucial for the establishment of social bonds, and thus why the French explorers in the end forced themselves to swallow the cornbread.
There is nothing categorically more disgusting about the Huron recipe than there is about the sort of predigestion that precedes communal eating in all cultures, yet this does not mean the French were simply being fickle when they felt disgust. Neither Kass nor Nussbaum, however, if they had been talking about cooking rather than sex, would have had the conceptual resources to come to that simple, and obvious, conclusion...