Yelping at the yuck factor

Unfairly, perhaps, but the most enduring legacy of bioethicist Leon Kass to his colleagues may be a phrase he used in 1997 to argue against human cloning, “the wisdom of repugnance”. That’s the Saks Fifth Avenue coinage; its CostCo cousin is “the yuck factor”. Both have been ridiculed as a backward and unintellectual attempt to slow technological progress by appealing to irrational feelings of disgust. Public policy should be based on rationality, not evolved responses to the dangers of spiders and copraphilia. More than a decade later the former head of Council on Bioethics under President George W. Bush is still being attacked over the concept’s validity.  

In the journal Bioethics, the Finnish scholar Jussi Niemela fires another salvo at Kass and his supporters. Kass argued that “repugnance is the emotional expression of deep wisdom, beyond reason’s power fully to articulate it”. Niemela counters that it is no such thing. Visceral reactions to IVF, cloning, incest, or even homosexuality are merely “cognitive violations” of “folk biology”. We feel disgusted because we have instinctive, biologically-evolved responses to dangerous foods and pathogens, not because an option is morally wrong. Furthermore, to make sense of the world, human beings use “folk biology” which projects onto living beings conventional structures of behaviour. Because the mechanical and asexual aspects of cloning clearly violate these, it is strange and unfamiliar, ie, a cognitive violation.

What politicians and the public need to grasp, argues Niemela, is that “the yuck factor” is basically the rationalization of superstitions. “If something is not easy to grasp by folk-theoretical reasoning, that doesn’t necessarily mean it is bad or even dangerous: it’s just something that contradicts natural intuitions. It appears that things that are not easily understood by utilizing folk-theoretical thought create a fertile soil for argumentation that strives to cause fear and disgust.”

Niemela’s is merely the latest instalment in the battle of emotivism in bioethics – whether moral judgements are just emotional reactions or acknowledgements of universal laws of human nature. It is a debate as old as the 18th century philosopher David Hume. Stay tuned for further controversy.

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