Yuck – The Wisdom of Repugnance–or Not
We all have either intuitive or deep seated aversion to some things. Many think this should be interpreted as evidence of the intrinsic harmful or evil character of that thing.
So does disgust have its own wisdom? Taken further, does one’s “gut reaction” justify objecting to some practice even in the absence of a persuasive rational case against that practice?
The ‘instinct’ to be repelled from such things as incest, cannibalism, coprophagia, bestiality in no way transfers to social questions such as marijuana legalization, alternative sexualities, racism, anti-Semitism, sexism and pornography. Using the yuck factor as a means to legitimize irrationalism is more a fallacious appeal to emotion, rather than a manifestation of some instinctive protection mechanism.
Disgust based morality has been used throughout history to justify persecution. Such prejudices are social decisions and not obvious truths. In these cases repugnancy has definite costs. They are cultural more repugnancies, rather than biological threat. If a culture decides to ban the sale of kidneys, the cost to individuals who might die for lack of vital organ is implicitly accepted.
Such repugnancies vary according to time period and culture. Slavery is an example. Abortion, egg donation, surrogacy, child labour, alcohol use, use of cadavers in research,
illegal drug trade, use of horses and dogs as meat, immigration, usury, gambling, product replacement, prostitution, organ donation, simony and even such relative mild evils as metered parking are evaluated via cultural norms.
The disgust over rancid oil, maggots, strong putrid odors is biological revulsion meant to prevent humans from consuming something with the potential to kill or severely disable.
Those acts of choice which may cause repugnance in some individuals are more in the realm of a legal philosophy or political theory. When a large group disapproves of or feels threatened by an activity of a smaller subset of that population, it can and does seek to prohibit that action or group via a statutory law.
Such things as use of guns, alcohol, drugs, types of clothing or dancing; the participation in these are considered a victimless crime where the harm is either non-existent, questionable or only to the individual performing such acts and even then of a magnitude of being relatively small. Such instances can impinged on free will of the individual and the laws prohibiting them are often selectively or not enforced. Such laws and enforcement can also call attention to the very thing or act they are wanting to prohibit thus making it interesting, glamorous or exciting. This can unintentionally increase the thing or act’s popularity. (term coined as the Streisand effect)
So next time you say “yuck”— you might want to consider your reaction’s source. Fascinating.