Bryan Caplan  

How Wise Is Repugnance?

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I finally read that instant classic of bioethics, Leon Kass' "The Wisdom of Repugnance."  While its proximate goal is to urge a ban on human cloning, Kass advances a much more general ethical position:
[R]epugnance is the emotional expression of deep wisdom, beyond reason's power fully to articulate it. Can anyone really give an argument fully adequate to the horror which is father-daughter incest (even with consent), or having sex with animals, or mutilating a corpse, or eating human flesh, or even just (just!) raping or murdering another human being? Would anybody's failure to give full rational justification for his or her revulsion at these practices make that revulsion ethically suspect?
Given my ethical intuitionism and my view that moral theories should begin with simple concrete cases, you would think that I would have to grant his point.  I do not.  Our two positions are actually quite different.  I think people should calm down and think rationally about ethical questions.  Kass almost seems to think that people do their best moralizing when they're overcome with emotion.  Listen to him try to angry up his readers' blood:
People are repelled by many aspects of human cloning. They recoil from the prospect of mass production of human beings, with large clones of look-alikes, compromised in their individuality; the idea of father-son or mother-daughter twins; the bizarre prospects of a woman giving birth to and rearing a genetic copy of herself, her spouse or even her deceased father or mother; the grotesqueness of conceiving a child as an exact replacement for another who has died; the utilitarian creation of embryonic genetic duplicates of oneself, to be frozen away or created when necessary, in case of need for homologous tissues or organs for transplantation; the narcissism of those who would clone themselves and the arrogance of others who think they know who deserves to be cloned or which genotype any child-to-be should be thrilled to receive; the Frankensteinian hubris to create human life and increasingly to control its destiny; man playing God.
But the most amazing sentence in Kass' whole piece almost flies under radar:
Revulsion is not an argument; and some of yesterday's repugnances are today calmly accepted -- though, one must add, not always for the better.
It's quite an admission.  Even if his last clause is dramatic understatement, Kass still acknowledges that calm acceptance of yesterday's repugnances is sometimes for the better.  And on reflection, that list is very long: vaccination, girls, dissection, religious toleration, kissing, C-sections, inter-racial marriage, paying for parking, colonoscopies, amputation of gangrenous tissue (double yuck), sex, Indian food, male nurses...  Some of these continue to disgust me - I feel faint if I even look at a syringe.  Still, if I think I need a shot, I try to calm down and do what I think - not feel - is the right thing.

My point is not that repugnance is less than 100% reliable.  100% reliability is a silly standard.  My point is that repugnance is habitually unreliable.  In any case, there are several useful ways to test the wisdom of repugnance.  Under what conditions do we justifiably discount repugnance?  For starters:

1. When the repugnant thing is unfamiliar.  In retrospect, new things often seem repugnant merely because we haven't experienced them before.  When a hero kisses a heroine in a movie, my sons flee in horror.  Once they have personal experience, I predict their views will change.

2. When a repugnant thing involves bodily fluids and the inner workings of the human body.  There's no way around it - dissection is gross.  Fortunately, some people are rational enough to overcome their natural disgust, secure in the knowledge that (a) the dead feel no pain, and (b) they might learn how to help the living.

3. When other people encourage our repugnance.  If a classroom full of kids see you eat a chocolate-covered bug, they'll all go, "Eeew!" in unison.  They'd probably be less judgmental one-on-one.

4. When we easily get used to it.  While deliberate exposure tends to reduce our negative emotions about almost anything, we get used to some things much more quickly than others.  Why?  Because we often learn that, all things considered, it isn't nearly as bad as we imagined.  Think about how completely we've adjusted to widespread in vitro fertilization.  It's a repugnant procedure to describe, but when you see happy parents holding their "test-tube baby," the folly our initial repugnance is plain.  Compared to the great good of life, a little yuckiness is nothing.

Frankly, I don't see how Kass could deny my points.  He almost surely agrees that mankind has repeatedly done the right thing by putting repugnance aside.  I'm equally sure, though, that he'd insist that we should stick with our gut reaction to human cloning.

Yet notice: Human cloning fits all four criteria for when we should discount our repugnance!  It's totally unfamiliar; it involves bodily fluids and the inner workings of the human body; other people (like Kass himself) encourage our repugnance; and it's pretty obvious that if clones walked among us, we would get used to them lickety-split.  If Kass himself met a clone, I doubt he'd tell him, "You should never have come into existence."  And before long, he probably wouldn't even say such things to himself.

Comments and Sharing

COMMENTS (26 to date)
David R. Henderson writes:

One of your clearest thought-out posts on an important issue ever.

Eric Johnson writes:

> girls

Well written, sir. Pretty droll stuff.

This guy also opposes genetic engineering as "dehumanizing." I'm a Burkean myself, but he just wants the cosmos to grind to a stop. He's the ultimate anti transhumanist. He could fairly be termed a cis-humanist.

hacs writes:

A small contribution.

Immobility before a situation in what the death seems imminent is repugnant? That is, are acceptable alternatives always flight or fight?

Waking the Tiger : Healing Trauma : The Innate Capacity to Transform Overwhelming Experiences

Leah writes:

Another example - there are a frightening number of people who find breastfeeding a baby repugnant. Many will support it in theory, but when faced with a baby nursing near them they'll complain to store management. Not because of nudity (generally you see a heck of a lot more in a typical beer commercial) but because it grosses them out to think of breasts producing milk for a baby. I tend to nurse anywhere and everywhere to try to normalize it, but the number of people who are horrified by something that is probably one of the least gross aspects of parenthood is staggering.

It seems that anytime people base their attitudes on feelings, we get stupid laws (obscenity, etc). Unfortunately the people in charge have enough power to legislate based on their feelings.

Curunir writes:

The amazing thing about the cloning "debate" is that your condition (1) is not even true. Clones do walk among us: We call them "identical twins." I'm one of them, and as far as I can tell, people don't walk around recoiling in horror from me. It's true there aren't "weird" clones (of dead people, etc.) around like Kass discusses, but I'm actually more of a clone than any of those people ever could be, since my brother and I shared a basically identical upbringing.

I am always baffled by people who act as if genetically identical people are some totally alien concept. Though, to be fair, I'm just as amazed that someone would want to raise a clone of a dead person as a "replacement". Again, just ask your nearest twin if that makes any sense at all, and I'll bet heavily they'll show you how dumb that is.

Granite26 writes:

The cloning debate is a good thing, not because the people being paranoid are right, but because the people being paranoid keep all of us asking the morality questions.

I'd counter your 'repugnance that is reduced by experience/knowledge' with 'repugnance that grows with experience/knowledge'. Unless people say 'look what's going on', it's possible, even likely, that desensitized people will carry out morally wrong policies with our tacit consent. (I'll use industrial slaughterhouses as an example. I take the modern prevelance of 'free range' chicken to be entirely a result of additional knowledge creating repulsion.)

caveat bettor writes:

This post reminded me of one of my (Cowenesque) most absurd beliefs: a rational darwinist would agree with the Bible that homosexuality is more repugnant than polygamy.

It's mostly absurd because of my perspective as a 21st century american not living in Utah. I've certainly got many gay friends and no known polygamist acquaintances; and I would say most around me would report similarly.

nicole writes:

I have an almost amazing inability to get worked up about anything in the second blockquote, but the line that really strikes me is "the Frankensteinian hubris to create human life and increasingly to control its destiny." Unless Kass is against having children at all, I don't see how he can say that and mean it.

Brian Moore writes:

"If Kass himself met a clone, I doubt he'd tell him, "You should never have come into existence." And before long, he probably wouldn't even say such things to himself."

I like what Curunir says:

"Clones do walk among us: We call them "identical twins.""

So we can definitely say that we've already satisfied (4) in that no one is particularly shocked by twins.

Good post.

fundamentalist writes:

Beware of the fatal conceit, as Hayek might say. In his book, "The Fatal Conceit", Hayek takes on the fake rationality of socialism and argues that some traditions should be honored as the accumulated wisdom of ages of human experimentation. That doesn't mean we should never question them. Only that the burden of proof should be high for logical arguments against them.

Repugnance often comes from the conscience, which evolution has no explanation for. Humans have a conscience; we instictively know that some things are wrong even if we can't explain why they're wrong. Christianity says that those instincts were implanted by God. Evolution says they're nothing but left over survival techniques and no longer valid. Hayek says they're accumulated wisdom. Whatever the source, we should tamper with them very carefully.

dWj writes:

My identical twin has suggested that identical twins might be more open in general to cloning than the overall average. I've never seen survey data, but would be interested to.

Emotions are a decent first pass for a lot of things, but they should be a starting point for reason, not a replacement.

BTW, I got the nasal H1N1 inoculation, and was surprised to find out how many people preferred to get stabbed in the arm. I probably wouldn't have had the vaccine if the nasal version hadn't been available, though I did agree get stabbed in the arm before going to south Asia last summer.

Lance writes:

I think you're missing Kass' point by saying he believes people do their best moralizing when overcome with emotion.

I don't believe he is saying that. Rather, emotional impulses ("repulsion", "disgust", and so on) are the mind's best ability to articulate a rational defense against an item that involves human nature, and a potential transgression against an ideal of human nature. Items, such as the distribution of wealth, hardly involve the issue of human nature and therefore emotional moralizing is not helpful.

So, that if a full rational justification of a person's opposition against human cloning is not forthcoming, that does not make their arguments ethically suspect.

Kass' position is understandable insofar one understands his view of the uniqueness of human nature. Therefore, things which might transgress the profoundness of human procreation (such as IVF, or artificial human cloning) might justifiably be opposed based upon the repugnance of human nature against such an imposition.

It strikes me as odd how often ethics discussions seem to ultimately fall back on no more than what feels right to the analyst. Does Kass offer any more? (In fact it seems so common in other people's moral arguments that I wonder if I do the same?)

I noticed Michael Sandel making a similar rhetorical move in his book Justice. In a discuss of ethics and price gouging, he says, "outrage at price-gougers is more than mindless anger. It gestures at a moral argument worth taking seriously." Again we have an emotional response which is taken to be morally significant.

My response (link to post at Knowledge Problem) was similar to Bryan's here:

Sandel says outrage at price gougers is a moral reaction to injustice that highlights a virtue which should be promoted at the expense of price gougers’ freedom. But the list of things causing outrage is long and various: alphabetically – alcohol, bigamy, cannibalism, … , same sex marriage, taxation, usury, vivisection, X-rated movies, Yankee imperialists, and zone pricing. In each case I suspect a moral sentiment is involved, at least for the outraged persons, but we need not rush to the conclusion that society should affirm the associated (claim of) civic virtue.
blighter writes:

I agree entirely with Bryan that there is nothing inherently wrong with father-daughter incest, so long as it is consensual. The widespread revulsion of it is of no more meaning than the widespread revulsion of a primitive tribe for modern medicine. We'll get over it eventually and the world will be a better, more free place because of it.

The chapter on incest in his book on why folk should have more children will no doubt prove illuminating, I eagerly await it.

fundamentalist writes:

blighter: "so long as it is consensual"

If you start with the right premise, you can ratioanlize away any morality at all. That is what caused the great atheist philosophers to claim that without God, there is no justification for any morality at all. There are societies today that justify the killing of newborn baby girls.

The abhorrence of incest comes partly from the fact that a child is under the control and authority and protection of the parent. Therefore it can't be claimed that the incest was consentual. The child does not have the maturity, experience, knowledge or freedom to freely decide the issue until they are an adult. And few adults will consent. The abhorrence comes partly from the genetic defects observed in the offspring. That's why we discourage first cousin marriages.

fundamentalist writes:

David R. Henderson: "One of your clearest thought-out posts on an important issue ever."

I couldn't disagree more. Caplan beats up a straw man. Kass argues for respect for moral repugnance which recognizes the fact of our conscience and which we can't explain through reason. Caplan argues about all kinds of repugnance, such as smells. If Caplan stuck with the original argument about moral repugnance, he wouldn't have much to stand on.

fundamentalist writes:

PS, the repugnance is the emotional response to what our conscience tells us. The conscience is intuitive knowledge, not emotion. You have to keep the two separate. The conscience is not an emotional response to acts.

jdm writes:

Are there any ethical issues here?

Suppose someone clones a child, or a spouse, or them-self. How will the clone, once it is old enough to realize it was created as a surrogate for someone else, react to that? Will the creators treat the clone child as a unique individual, or as a surrogate for something they have lost? Suppose the clone's predecessor got Alzheimer's at 50. What happens when the clone understands that? Also, will the clone wonder how unique it is? Suppose the clone's predecessor was a wonderful composer or a brilliant economist. How will the clone feel if it doesn't measure up to someone who had the same biological abilities?
What if we find out that clones are more susceptible to certain diseases and die young?
I think there are a number of issues that need to be carefully considered before we go off and say cloning is a wonderful idea.
(I don't think the case of identical twins is comparable because they start their lives at the same time - there is no one who came before them
with identical traits.)

You are correct that "initially repugnant" does not necessarily imply "unethical". But it does not follow from that observation that "initially repugnant" means "everything is really OK" after you've had a chance to think about it.

I also suspect that your conclusion:
"If Kass himself met a clone, I doubt he'd tell him, "You should never have come into existence.""
is highly unfair to Kass. I very much doubt he intends to blame the clones for their existence - that seems a very ungenerous reading on your part. Rather he is (I suspect) arguing that creating unique individuals the old fashioned way is preferable - for the individual thus created - to creating a clone. His criticism is not leveled at the clones, but at their creators.
(To be fair I have not read Kass's book so this is just conjecture).

Michael Thomas writes:

One thing I would point out is that number 3 is lopsided:

"When other people encourage our repugnance. If a classroom full of kids see you eat a chocolate-covered bug, they'll all go, "Eeew!" in unison. They'd probably be less judgmental one-on-one."

It is easy to beat herd mentality by appealing to people's repugnance of herd mentality. This does not specially privilege one side of the argument. In debate we can always counter the "slippery slope / Hitler" argument.

What I fear, and what I think would be a better articulation of this point is path-dependence or lock-in.

mike shupp writes:

There's a middling amount of evidence suggesting that parent-child incest does occur in western cultures. There's also a fair amount of incest-related porn on the Internet. It's hard to square either fact with humans having the "innnate" sense of moral repugnance that Kass assumes we all have.

Secondly there are cultures in which father-daughter marriages are allowed. Not very large, not very technologically advanced, I concede, and it would be more accurate to say such marriages are accepted than to describe them as commonplace.

Still, one might imagaine a not at all evil man telling his daughter something like "Your mother is ailing and needs a second wife to share the household labor. My prospects for a second marriage are not good, because after all a junior wife might find conditions difficult here. So I need you to take the responsibilities of a second wife, and since you will be due the respect paid to a wife and because I do not want to give you up to some other man, I will marry you and treat you in all ways as a much beloved junior wife should be."

I.e., what fills Kass with horror might in some cicrumstances seem reasonable, defensible, and possibly even moral. If Kass is so insistant on policing human behavior, perhaps he first ought to become acquainted with actual humans. He's old enough to become an eduated man, isn't he?

fundamentalist, I think you're wrong.

For a long time mixed-race marriages were regarded as morally repugnant by some, and the view was widespread enough to become part of many cultures and religious beliefs. What Caplan writes above seems true of moral repugnance toward mixed-race marriages.

Perhaps for some persons who regarded (or currently regard) mixed-race marriages with repugnance, that repugnance is the product of - as you put it - intuitive knowledge. It seems to me that intuitive knowledge is no more reliable as a guide to morality than the experience of repugnance.

In any case, the fundamental issue here is not an individual's inner knowledge or feelings, but rather what moral and ethical values should be dominant when individual moral views are in conflict. Responding that you possess intuitive knowledge about the rightness of your own views doesn't help people who lack that intuitive knowledge to see the rightness of your views.

Lemmy Caution writes:

Worst of all from this point of view are those more uncivilized forms of eating, like licking an ice cream cone --a catlike activity that has been made acceptable in informal America but that still offends those who know eating in public is offensive.

Leon Kass, The Hungry Soul

[Comment edited for attribution.--Econlib Ed.]

One of the highest compliments I ever received was "This is not just good writing, this is good thinking." I must now pass that compliment on to you. Congratulations.

GabbyD writes:

i have a question on criteria 1: "When the repugnant thing is unfamiliar"

why is this a reason to reject repugnance? in fact, isnt this a reason to believe that our repugnance is telling us something?

if its familiar thing, say homosexual kissing, we should reject repugnance because one reason we might dislike it is our unspoken prejudice. i.e. we just dont like it.

if its unfamiliar, it is unlikely that our repugnance is driven by "we just dont like it", and instead is a signal of something trully wrong.

Jefferson Smith writes:

[Comment removed pending confirmation of email address. Email the to request restoring this comment. A valid email address is required to post comments on EconLog.--Econlib Ed.]

Barbara writes:

Clear and cogent reasoning -- We need to understand that individual humans defy commoditization -- and that makes cloning less dangerous than we fear.

I would like to add, regarding the supposedly "inherent" risks of reproductive engineering, about which I know more than I ever thought I would: What is inherently contradictory is to acknowledge the dignity of offspring and accord them a right to be "who they are" and yet to conclude that, somehow, clones do not belong. It's true that genetic sameness will predispose people to certain traits -- but that's true of all offspring -- a clone will never -- can never -- be the same as its progenitor because memory and experience cannot be transmitted genetically. Many people who have their "own" biological children naturally make the mistake of thinking they can make them into a "mini me." Oh how wrong they are -- and the beauty of the parenting impulse for MOST (by no means all) parents is that you are more in love with what you got than what you wanted to get. The actual human almost always overwhelms the inchoate ideal you had in the back or front of your mind.

Why do we think the parenting of clones would be different?

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