The wisdom of repugnance or "appeal to disgust",[1] also known informally as the yuck factor,[2] is the belief that an intuitive (or "deep-seated") negative response to some thing, idea, or practice should be interpreted as evidence for the intrinsically harmful or evil character of that thing. Furthermore, it refers to the notion that wisdom may manifest itself in feelings of disgust towards anything which lacks goodness or wisdom, though the feelings or the reasoning of such 'wisdom' may not be immediately explicable through reason.

Origin and usage

The term "wisdom of repugnance" was coined in 1997 by Leon Kass, chairman (2001–2005) of the President's Council on Bioethics, in an article in The New Republic,[3] which was later expanded into a further (2001) article in the same magazine,[4] and also incorporated into his 2002 book Life, Liberty, and the Defense of Dignity.[5] Kass stated that disgust was not an argument per se, but went on to say that "in crucial cases... repugnance is the emotional expression of deep wisdom, beyond reason's power fully to articulate."

The term originated in discussions of bioethics. It is often used by those who accept its underlying premise; i.e., that repugnance does, in fact, indicate wisdom. It is thus often viewed as loaded language, and is primarily used by certain bioconservatives to justify their position.

The concept is also used in the study of controversies such as same-sex marriage,[6][7][8] pornography,[9] marijuana legalization,[10] alternative sexualities[11] and legalization of abortion.[12] In all cases, it expresses the view that one's "gut reaction" might justify objecting to some practice even in the absence of a persuasive rational (e.g., utilitarian) case against that practice.

Reactions and criticism

The wisdom of repugnance has been criticized, both as an example of a fallacious appeal to emotion and for an underlying premise which seems to reject rationalism. Although mainstream science concedes that a sense of disgust most likely evolved as a useful defense mechanism (e.g. in that it tends to prevent or prohibit potentially harmful behaviour such as inbreeding, cannibalism, and coprophagia), social psychologists question whether the instinct can serve any moral or logical value when removed from the context in which it was originally acquired.

Martha Nussbaum explicitly opposes the concept of a disgust-based morality as an appropriate guide for law and policy, instead siding with John Stuart Mill's harm principle as the proper basis for limiting individual liberties, which supports the legal ideas of consent, the age of majority, privacy, and bestows equal rights unto citizens. Nussbaum argues that the "politics of disgust" is merely an unreliable emotional reaction which has been used throughout history as a justification for persecutionracism, antisemitism, sexism, and homophobia have all been driven by popular repulsion.[13] In an interview with Reason magazine, she elaborated:

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. For both of these reasons, I believe, anyone who cherishes the key democratic values of equality and liberty should be deeply suspicious of the appeal to those emotions in the context of law and public policy.[14]

Stephen Jay Gould has remarked that "our prejudices often overwhelm our limited information. [They] are so venerable, so reflexive, so much a part of our second nature, that we never stop to recognize their status as social decisions with radical alternatives—and we view them instead as given and obvious truths."[15]

British bioethicist John Harris replied to Kass's view by arguing that, "there is no necessary connection between phenomena, attitudes, or actions that make us uneasy, or even those that disgust us, and those phenomena, attitudes, and actions that there are good reasons for judging unethical. Nor does it follow that those things we are confident are unethical must be prohibited by legislation or regulation."[16]

The word squick was created within BDSM subculture in reaction to this sort of reasoning, and denotes a "gut reaction" of disgust without the implication of any sort of actual moral judgment.[17]

In The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion, psychologist Jonathan Haidt cites Kass' argument as typifying concerns of moral degradation, which he contrasts with "moral elevation." Haidt, drawing from Emile Durkheim, argues that humans' ability to unite around sacred beliefs and objects and experience moral elevation—even in the absence of immediate utilitarian benefits—is an essential component of human civilizations which facilitates in-group cooperation and social belongingness. Without "binding" moral and sacred values, individuals tend to draw inward and exhibit fewer prosocial behaviours. Consequently, citing research by Robert Putnam, Haidt argues that moral disgust and taboos may be justified in certain, culturally-specific cases wherein they can promote Social capital without significantly negatively impacting the rights of many individuals, citing incest (even with no risk of procreation), bestiality and the Armin Meiwes cannibalism case as examples:[18]

[In] Lawrence v. Texas, [Justice Antonin Scalia's] dissent was that: 'If we allow homosexuality, what's next? Incest, bestiality...' To which I would say: since 5% of people are gay, that's a lot of people, and we really should try to [overcome the disgust]. The number of people who can't live a full and decent life unless they have sex with a sheep? Now, that's not very many people... If [repugnance] does some good to have a sense that there are still some morals we share, and there are few people out there who can't be happy, I'm willing to let them be unhappy.[19]

See also


  1. ^ Nussbaum, Martha (July 15, 2004). "Discussing Disgust" (Interview). Interviewed by Reason. Retrieved September 5, 2012.
  2. ^ Cohen, Patricia (Jan 31, 2008). "Economists Dissect the 'Yuck' Factor". The New York Times.
  3. ^ Kass, Leon R. (June 2, 1997). "The Wisdom of Repugnance". The New Republic. Vol. 216, no. 22. Washington, DC: CanWest. pp. 17–26.
  4. ^ Kass, Leon R (May 21, 2001). "Preventing a Brave New World: Why We Should Ban Human Cloning Now". The New Republic. Vol. 224, no. 21. pp. 30–39.
  5. ^ Kass, Leon R. (2002). Life, Liberty, and the Defense of Dignity. Encounter Books. ISBN 1-893554-55-4.
  6. ^ Terrizzi, John A. Jr.; Shook, Natalie J.; Ventis, W. Larry (2010). "Disgust: A predictor of social conservatism and prejudicial attitudes toward homosexuals". Personality and Individual Differences. 49 (6): 587–592. doi:10.1016/j.paid.2010.05.024.
  7. ^ Smith, David (2011). Less than human : why we demean, enslave, and exterminate others. New York: St. Martin's Press. ISBN 978-0-312-53272-7. OCLC 651912610.
  8. ^ Frank, Nathaniel (2014-02-21). "How the Mind Rationalizes Homophobia". The Atlantic. Retrieved 2019-09-11.
  9. ^ Fleischman, Diana S.; Hamilton, Lisa Dawn; Fessler, Daniel M. T.; Meston, Cindy M. (2015-06-24). Mazza, Marianna (ed.). "Disgust versus Lust: Exploring the Interactions of Disgust and Fear with Sexual Arousal in Women". PLOS ONE. 10 (6). Public Library of Science (PLoS): e0118151. Bibcode:2015PLoSO..1018151F. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0118151. ISSN 1932-6203. PMC 4479551. PMID 26106894.
  10. ^ Bostwick, J. Michael (2012). "Blurred Boundaries: The Therapeutics and Politics of Medical Marijuana". Mayo Clinic Proceedings. 87 (2). Elsevier BV: 172–186. doi:10.1016/j.mayocp.2011.10.003. ISSN 0025-6196. PMC 3538401. PMID 22305029.
  11. ^ Brown, Nadia; Gershon, Sarah Allen (2017-01-02). "Body politics". Politics, Groups, and Identities. 5 (1). Informa UK Limited: 1–3. doi:10.1080/21565503.2016.1276022. ISSN 2156-5503.
  12. ^ Cahill, Courtney Megan (2013). "Abortion and disgust" (PDF). Harvard Civil Rights-Civil Liberties Law Review. S2CID 29966755. Archived from the original (PDF) on 2019-03-07. Retrieved 2019-09-11.
  13. ^ Nussbaum, Martha C. (August 6, 2004). "Danger to Human Dignity: The Revival of Disgust and Shame in the Law". The Chronicle of Higher Education. Washington, DC. Retrieved 2007-11-24.
  14. ^ "Discussing Disgust". 2004-07-15. Archived from the original on February 18, 2008. Retrieved February 22, 2008.
  15. ^ Gould, Stephen Jay (1997). Full House: The Spread of Excellence From Plato to Darwin. Harmony. ISBN 0-517-70849-3.
  16. ^ Harris, John (1998). Clones, Genes, and Immortality: Ethics and the Genetic Revolution. Oxford: Oxford University Press. p. 37. ISBN 0-19-288080-2.
  17. ^ Barrett, Grant, ed. (June 23, 2005). "Squick". Double-Tongued Dictionary. Brooklyn, NY: Grant Barrett. Retrieved 2007-11-24.
  18. ^ Haidt, Jonathan (2012). The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion. New York: Pantheon Books.
  19. ^ "It's Hard to Gross Out a Libertarian: Jonathan Haidt on Sex, Politics, and Disgust". ReasonTV. February 26, 2013. Retrieved 2023-12-09.

General references