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You stink, therefore I am

Philosophers ponder the meaning of disgust

SPITTLE, EXCREMENT, menstrual blood, the smell of rotting meat. Cockroaches, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush. Disgust is both powerful and pervasive in our lives, yet of all the emotions that make us human, it is surely the most neglected, and the least understood.

There is an obvious reason for that -- disgust is disgusting -- and a more subtle one: To dwell too much on disgust is to risk losing any sense of the object of study. (In this, "disgustology" resembles "sexology.") The cultural psychologist Paul Rozin, who with several colleagues has devised elaborate disgust rating scales (see sidebar) has done more than any other scholar to plumb the depths of disgust. Yet there is something wildly incongruous and even faintly creepy about such instruments, which ask people to rate their disgust at unflushed public toilets, soup stirred with a flyswatter, a 30-year-old man who seeks sexual relationships with 80-year-old women, and so on, allowing the disgustologists to present their findings with all the solemnity of statistical precision. (What Jonathan Swift could have done with this! Not to mention Dostoevsky.)

In the last few years, however, the study of disgust has emerged from the province of specialists and their textbooks to take its place in the public square. This emergence can be precisely dated to 1997, with the appearance of "The Anatomy of Disgust," by William Ian Miller, an iconoclastic professor of law at the University of Michigan whose previous book had been devoted to humiliation, and ethicist Leon Kass's widely debated New Republic cover essay "The Wisdom of Repugnance," which made an argument against human cloning.

Taking his cue from Robert Burton's great ragbag of a book, "The Anatomy of Melancholy," Miller explored the realm of disgust with a palpable zest and a novelistic attention to particulars. ("Thick, Greasy Life," one of his chapters is called.) He noted the varieties of disgust excited by the assorted "holes" in the body, the extent to which each of the senses serves as a trigger of disgust, the role of disgust (particularly the sense of smell) in antagonism between social classes, and much, much more. But Miller also paid attention to the logic of disgust, especially to the link between physical and moral disgust. "Consider how hard it is, in normal conversation," he writes, "to give voice to moral judgments without having recourse to the idiom of disgust or reference to the concept of the disgusting."

Disgust is quite fallible as a moral guide, Miller admitted, yet he nevertheless argued that a well-cultivated sense of disgust is essential to our moral intuitions. Kass's argument, which took on new prominence several years later when he was appointed as chairman of the president's council on bioethics, was conducted along similar lines but with less ambiguity. While acknowledging that "some of yesterday's repugnances are today calmly accepted" (though he quickly adds "not always for the better"), Kass argued that in "crucial cases" -- father-daughter incest and the mutilation of corpses, for example -- "repugnance is the emotional expression of a deep wisdom, beyond reason's power to fully articulate it."

There have been other contributions to this ongoing conversation. A study released by the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine in February concluded that disgust is an evolutionary response to the threat of disease -- a reflex grasped intuitively by the makers of "Fear Factor," who also understand that disgust is often intertwined with fascination. Last month saw the reissue of two essays on disgust by the Hungarian-born philosopher Aurel Kolnai (1905-1973). But by far the most significant addition since Miller and Kass is Martha Nussbaum's book "Hiding from Humanity: Disgust, Shame, and the Law," just published by Princeton University Press.

. . .

Nussbaum, who teaches at the University of Chicago Law School, is America's most prominent philosopher of public life, and a new book by her is always a force to be reckoned with. The argument of "Hiding from Humanity," characteristically lucid, is carried on at two levels. First, she wants to put disgust on trial. Indeed, as she says in her introduction, "I shall ultimately take a very strong line against disgust." In particular, she wants to draw attention to the way in which disgust has often gone hand-in-hand with prejudice (she cites "the central locus of disgust in today's United States: male loathing of the male homosexual"). In this connection her argument has an immediate practical application to the law.

At a deeper level, however, Nussbaum's argument is not simply about the law, but about a whole conception of human society and what it means to be human. As she puts it, "The book is intended, ultimately, as an essay about the psychological foundations of liberalism, about the institutional and developmental conditions for the sustenance of a liberal respect for human equality."

Nussbaum uncompromisingly rejects the usefulness of disgust as a moral guide. If an act involves coercion or harm to a person -- as in Kass's example of father-daughter incest -- that will be sufficient basis for moral or legal judgment, whether or not the harm is of a kind that particularly excites disgust. If it involves no harm, then the action in question should not be prohibited in the first place.

Here Nussbaum has to maneuver a bit in a way that will leave some readers unsatisfied. For she herself has, as she acknowledges, argued elsewhere for the relevance of emotions to the law (against those who suppose that law is all about sovereign reason, uncontaminated by emotion). She contrasts disgust, which she sees as thoroughly unreliable, with anger, which she sees as far more constructive in leading to justice. But it doesn't require much imagination to think how often anger, too, can go awry.

It's at this point in the argument that the deeper ambitions of Nussbaum's book come into play. Drawing on Rozin's theory of disgust and adding some wrinkles of her own, Nussbaum claims that disgust is fundamentally motivated by our "fear of our animal bodies" and our awareness of our vulnerability, above all our mortality. My disgust as I enter the outhouse on grandpa's farm -- the stench, the buzzing of the flies, the smeared scraps of toilet paper faintly visible below -- is a distancing reaction, an evolutionary adaptation that may be useful, Nussbaum concedes, in letting me get on with my life without being oppressed by a constant awareness of my animal nature, my inevitable death.

But this distancing from what Nussbaum regards as the bedrock reality of human existence comes at a great cost. It leads me to distance myself from other people who remind me of my vulnerability -- indeed, to define myself by my disgust for them. You stink, therefore I am. You are deformed, I am normal.

This desire to avoid facing the harsh terms of our existence may also lead me to accept all kinds of crazy, dangerous notions -- the notion, for instance, that there's a God, and that when I die I'll go to be with him in eternal bliss. One of the epigraphs to Nussbaum's book -- which she also quotes in the text itself -- is a statement by "B," a patient of the psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott: "The alarming thing about equality is that we are then both children, and the question is, where is father? We know where we are if one of us is the father."

But there is no father, Nussbaum believes, and so we must embrace the difficult condition of equality. What she desires, Nussbaum writes, is "a society of citizens who admit that they are needy and vulnerable, and who discard the grandiose demands for omnipotence and completeness that have been at the heart of so much human misery, both public and private."

As we've seen, she seems grudgingly to admit the limited utility of disgust, so long as it is kept apart from the law and public life, especially for those who are not as bracingly clear-sighted as herself. "It may even be," she writes, "that many, or even most, human beings need some form of [disgust] in order to live, because we cannot endure too much daily confrontation with our own decay and with the oozy stuffs of which our bodies are made." But it's an inhospitable world she imagines, in which most of us are consigned to live in delusion.

Telling, too, is the scant attention Nussbaum gives to self-disgust. "Disgust is a recognition of danger to our purity," Miller wrote in "The Anatomy of Disgust." "But it is more. The mere sensation of it also involves an admission that we did not escape contamination." Where Nussbaum sees disgust almost exclusively as a distancing device, Miller sees in it an acknowledgment of our own disgustingness: We stink too.

Yes, yes, self-disgust can be crippling, pathological, as countless gurus and experts in our culture of self-esteem tirelessly preach. But self-disgust can also be profoundly healthy, life-saving, congruent with reality. Who has not known those moments when one is suddenly disgusted by an all-too-truthful perception of oneself? Self-disgust is an indispensable engine of reform.

If it seems a long way from all this to a wrinkled nose at the sight of a plate full of okra (which my wife, unaccountably, doesn't find disgusting at all), that's just what it is to be human -- to be disgusted, yes, but also aware of our disgust, capable of holding it up for inspection. "What strange creatures we are!" Miller exclaims, to which we can only add, Amen.

John Wilson is the editor of Books & Culture, a bimonthly review, and of "Best Christian Writing 2004" (Jossey-Bass). 

gross-out anatomy
Paul Rozin, a psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania, may be the dean of American disgustology. For more than two decades, Rozin and his colleagues have been measuring research subjects' responses to rotting meat, dead bodies, feces, body fluids, and other "disgust elicitors" and pondering their meanings.

Some researchers argue that disgust is a universal response triggered by things that are likely to make us sick. But Rozin believes that disgust is powerfully shaped by culture. As he explained to an interviewer in 1997, "Disgust evolves culturally, and develops from a system to protect the body from harm to a system to protect the soul from harm."

To find out how you rate on Rozin's Disgust Scale, visit this website. Below is a sample question from one version developed by Rozin and his colleagues:

How disgusting would you find each of the following experiences?
- You see someone put ketchup on vanilla ice cream, and eat it.
- You see maggots on a piece of meat in an outdoor garbage pail.
- While you are walking through a tunnel under a railroad track, you smell urine.
- You see a bowel movement left unflushed in a public toilet.
- You accidentally touch the ashes of a person who has been cremated.
- You discover that a friend of yours changes underwear only once a week.
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