Prudery isn’t justice

Reading Objection: Disgust, morality, and the law by Debra Lieberman and Carlton Patrick for New Scientist, 15 September 2018

Ww want the law to be fair and objective. We also want laws that work in the real world, protecting and reassuring us, and maintaining our social and cultural values.

The moral dilemma is that we can’t have both. This may be because humans are hopelessly irrational and need a rational legal system to keep them in check. But it may also be that rationality has limits; trying to sit in judgement over everything is as cruel and farcical as gathering cats in a sack.

This dilemma is down to disgust, say Debra Lieberman, a psychologist at the University of Miami, and Carlton Patrick, a legal scholar at the University of Central Florida. In Objection, they join forces to consider why we find some acts disgusting without being reprehensible (like nose-picking), while others seem reprehensible without being disgusting (like drunk driving).

Disgust is such a powerful intuitive guide that it has informed our morality and hence our legal system. But it maps badly over a jurisprudence built on notions of harm and culpability.

Worse, terms of disgust are frequently wielded against people we intend to marginalise, making disgust a dangerously fissile element in our moral armoury.

Can science help us manage it? The prognosis is not good. If you were to ask a cultural anthropologist, a psychologist, a neuroscientist, a behavioural economist and a sociologist to explain disgust, you would receive different, often mutually contradictory, opinions.

The authors make their own job much more difficult, however, by endorsing a surreally naive model of the mind – one in which “both ’emotion’ and ‘cognition’ require circuitry” and it is possible to increase a child’s devotion to family by somehow manipulating this “circuitry”.

From here, the reader is ushered into the lollipop van of evolutionary psychology, where “disgust is best understood as a type of software program instantiated in our neural hardware”, which “evolved originally to guide our ancestors when making decisions about what to eat”.

The idea that disgust is to some degree taught and learned, conditioned by culture, class and contingency, is not something easily explored using the authors’ over-rigid model of the mind. Whenever they lay this model aside, however, they handle ambiguity well.

Their review of the literature on disgust is cogent and fair. They point out that although the decriminalisation of homosexuality and gay marriage argues persuasively for legal rationalism, there are other acts – like the violation of corpses – that we condemn without a strictly rational basis (the corpse isn’t complaining). This plays to the views of bioethicist Leon Kass, who calls disgust “the only voice left that speaks up to defend the central core of our humanity”.

Objection explores an ethical territory that sends legal purists sprawling. The authors emerge from this interzone battered, but essentially unbowed.