Wisdom of Repugnance redux

I’m reminded of a controversial 1997 essay about cloning by conservative bioethicist Leon Kass titled The Wisdom of Repugnance.” The article, its follow-up, and a subsequent book were quite controversial at the time because many liberal philosophers and intellectuals were troubled by Kass’ suggestion that morality should be based on an appeal to disgust.” Such intuitions often lead to amoral or even outrightly anti-moral thoughts and actions, the critics insisted, and so they need to be tamed or dissolved entirely by rational argument and reflection. Only the outcome of such a rational process could produce genuinely moral principles. In response, Kass insisted that on an issue like cloning, where reasoning alone seems incapable of delivering a ground for opposition, it made sense to rely on widely shared intuitions about its wrongness.

Leaving aside Kass’ claim about the need to actively encourage moral reflection on the basis of intuition, I think it’s indisputable that we all do regularly make moral judgments on such grounds. It was an intuition, a feeling, that led so many to respond instantly with outrage to images of Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin kneeling on the neck of George Floyd as he struggled to draw his final breaths before he died.

Just as it was intuition that led so many to recoil from Trump’s behavior on Tuesday night. No one was injured. No one died. But for over 90 minutes the president of the United States behaved like a bully out for blood — one whose penchant for verbal violence would not be restrained by rules, the norms of the occasion, or even minimal standards of common decency and public comportment.

As Tuesday night’s excruciating debate finally drew to a close, what I mainly felt was repugnance toward Donald Trump — and the conviction that in this feeling could be found the beginnings of wisdom.

Damon Linker, Donald Trump and the jerk vote

October 2, 2020

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