On the "appeal to disgust"

28 07 2006

I have just come across a wonderful interview with the philosopher Martha Nussbaum on the topic of the deleterious role played by disgust and shame in public policy and discourse surrounding important social issues. You might even say her argument establishes the appeal to disgust as a logical fallacy–though she is careful to emphasise that emotion can have a legitimate role to play in reasoning:

Some emotions are essential to law and to public principles of justice: anger at wrongdoing, fear for our safety, compassion for the pain of others, all these are good reasons to make laws that protect people in their rights. [. . .]

Disgust, I argue (drawing on recent psychological research), is different. Its cognitive content involves a shrinking from contamination that is associated with a human desire to be non-animal. That desire, of course, is irrational in the sense that we know we will never succeed in fulfilling it; it is also irrational in another and even more pernicious sense. As psychological research shows, people tend to project disgust properties onto groups of people in their own society, who come to figure as surrogates for people’s anxieties about their own animality. By branding members of these groups as disgusting, foul, smelly, slimy, the dominant group is able to distance itself even further from its own animality. [. . .] Unlike anger, disgust does not provide the disgusted person with a set of reasons that can be used for the purposes of public argument and public persuasion.

Nussbaum cites recent debates around same-sex marriage and gay rights–including, for example, claims that “gay men eat feces and drink raw blood”–as examples of public discourse that regularly invoke disgust to persuade people to adopt a particular point of view. Videos of abortions produced for public consumption by anti-abortion groups also spring to mind. There is a case to be made, perhaps, that images of dead, wounded or disfigured women and children–which might be used to bolster both pro- and anti-war arguments–also constitutes an appeal to disgust.

What do you think? Is the appeal to disgust a logical fallacy, and should it be avoided?

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