BOOK REVIEW

Gay rights and the politics of humanity
Nussbaum has put her finger on our generation’s great moral choice: Do we extend equal rights to homosexuals? By Joshua F Leach

E

very generation is faced with moral choices. We may wish that it were otherwise, or that we lived in easier times, but, that does not make it so. For us, we have to do the right thing in the here and now, with one eye turned toward posterity. We must remember that history will judge all of us, whether or not it remembers our names. One person whom history will judge kindly is Martha Nussbaum, a major political philosopher at the University of Chicago. The Ernst Freund Professor of Law and Ethics, who has authored diverse works on moral psychology; gender and social justice; the ethical life of the ancient Greeks; and much else. She springs from an intellectual line of descent that stretches from the nineteenth century abolitionists and prison reformers to the twentieth century civil rights activists and conscientious objectors. Just as these prior activists recognised the moral requirements of their time, so Nussbaum has put her finger on our generation’s great moral choice: do we extend equal rights and sympathy to homosexuals, or, do we regard them as base, vile, or unworthy? In From disgust to humanity, Nussbaum provides an answer. Nussbaum begins by taking aim at two major thinkers who practise what she calls “the politics of disgust.” These are the British lawyer, Patrick Devlin, and the contemporary US bioethicist, Leon Kass. By “the politics of disgust,” Nussbaum refers to the belief that strong feelings of distaste or repugnance are good reasons to legally ban certain kinds of behaviour. Devlin expressed such a belief in midcentury Britain, and used it specifically to target homosexuality. He declared

that the typical “man on the Clapham omnibus” feels horror at the thought of homosexual acts, and since nearly all ordinary people share this emotion, it must represent an integral aspect of our social fabric. It is a moral standard we all share, and to violate it by making homosexuality legal would destroy our collective life. Kass makes a rather different case, in many ways even stronger than that of Devlin. He does not simply argue that we ought to respect the feelings of the man on the omnibus, but that those feelings are necessarily correct. They contain an inherent wisdom which keeps us from transgressing our God-given human nature. Implied, if not explicitly stated,

From disgust to humanity Sexual orientation and constitutional law By Martha C Nussbaum Oxford University Press, 2010.

in Kass’ argument is a stance against gay equality. Devlin and Kass provide rather highbrow arguments for this position. Yet, Nussbaum suggests that they are not really so different from the arguments used by the more aggressive homophobes and anti-gay activists on the ground, who also practise the politics of disgust. She quotes the astonishing words of anti-gay activist Paul Cameron, for instance, who accused homosexuals of drinking blood and ingesting faeces. In one interview conducted in the 1980s, Cameron waxed nostalgic at the memory of how “homosexuals were hung three hundred years ago in our society.” A few lines earlier, he urged the authorities to “screen and quarantine [homosexuals] until we come up with a cure.” This is of course where the politics of disgust ultimately leads us. If we regard widespread feelings of disgust as legitimate moral barometers, we may well arrive at some nasty conclusions. Disgust is a notoriously unreliable emotion, and every time it has been put into political practice, it has been used to violate the equal treatment and dignity of underprivileged groups. Nussbaum points to caste hierarchy in India, anti-Semitism in Nazi Germany, and racism in the United States: all cases in which some groups have been stigmatised as inherently putrid and disgusting. There is generally no evidence to back up such assertions, but none is required. Every advertising agent can tell you that reason has little impact on our fears and desires. Nussbaum does not spurn the entire notion of disgust. We may well feel disgust at unjust acts, cruelty, or sadism.

24

March/April 2010

Independent World report

We are disgusted when people eat dogs or cats or make coats out of their fur. However, in all of these cases, harm is being done to the innocent, which makes it a qualitatively different situation. In the case of homosexual acts, the only harm being inflicted is upon the worldview of homophobes. Just as the feelings of racists need not be taken into consideration when deciding to grant rights to African Americans, so it is in the case of gay rights. With her characteristic mixture of moral philosophy and detailed psychology, Nussbaum dissects the emotional landscape of disgust. She reveals that our disgust at primary objects – such as faeces, blood, and bodily fluids – is evolutionarily useful. We feel horror at those things which remind us of our own mortality and vulnerability because we rightly care about our own survival. However, there is nothing rational or natural about repugnance for specific human groups. Just as people from India would not understand the feelings of white racists in the United States, so too Westerners would not understand Indian caste prejudice. Those hatreds which a society regards as natural or timeless are really nothing of the kind. Rather, it is useful for each society to transfer disgust at mortality and decay to a specific group. This helps us to absolve ourselves and to forget our own weakness and humanity. When Cameron accuses homosexuals of grotesque sexual practices, he allows heterosexuals to ignore the reality of their own sex lives. This is projective disgust, declares Nussbaum, and it is a dreadful guide to political behaviour. It was used in Nazi propaganda to generate anti-Semitic feeling. It has also been used to restrict the rights of women, minorities, and many other groups throughout history. Of course, Leon Kass would surely not recognise the wisdom of projective disgust. He would also no doubt reject any association with Nazism or racism or apartheid. In this, he reflects an age-old conservative tendency which has existed as long as there has been moral progress. He retroactively admits that defenders of human equality were correct in their past struggles, against racism or fascism, say, yet he continues to oppose those movements in the present which seek the

same thing on behalf of other targeted groups. There is no doubt whatsoever in my mind that future generations will regard today’s opponents of gay rights the way we now regard Southern segregationists or those who opposed women’s suffrage. The conservatives of tomorrow will be embarrassed that they did not support gay rights when the choice mattered. Yet, they will still oppose whatever humanitarian issue happens to be significant at that future date – animal rights, perhaps, or something else entirely. Does this process ever end? From what I have written above, it may sound that I am perfectly sanguine about the endless march of new and better rights. However, I ultimately feel that this is not enough, as does Nussbaum. Rights are necessary, but they are not sufficient. In today’s world, the international community has supposedly granted rights to every single human being. However, we constantly find that people’s most basic rights to life and liberty are violated on a daily basis. They are poor, they starve, and they die in conditions of squalor and injustice. It seems to me that in such a world, more rights granted on paper will not solve our problems. My hope lies more in the direction of moral regeneration and egalitarian social justice. Nussbaum’s solution, which I greatly admire, also goes beyond mere paper rights: it is the politics of humanity – a daily practice of moral education which emphasises imaginative sympathy with the plight of others. However, one should not spurn the importance of rights to this ultimate goal, as legal rights may actually help us attain it in the long run. We have seen throughout history that legal changes often precede moral changes. For instance, African Americans were once regarded as objects of disgust in the US. Racism today, though still rampant, does not generally take this form. People are far more likely to feel disgust and fear at the sight of lynchings or Klu Klux Klan imagery than at unoffending black people. This is genuine moral progress, not merely a legal revolution. This is, therefore, the best argument to marshal against thinkers like Devlin who worry that moral change, even moral progress, will destroy the ethical

We are disgusted when people eat dogs or cats or make coats out of their fur. However, in all of these cases, harm is being done to the innocent, which makes it a qualitatively different situation. In the case of homosexual acts, the only harm being inflicted is upon the worldview of homophobes. Just as the feelings of racists need not be taken into consideration when deciding to grant rights to African Americans, so it is in the case of gay rights.
standards of the community. The standards of any human group can and must change. Such change need not undo the cohesion of all society, in fact, it can reduce conflict by helping us to recognise each other’s worth. I believe we are already entering a world in which most people do not feel any particular disgust at the thought of homosexuality. After all, homosexuals play a large role now in our social and cultural life. I am sure that what will revolt and disgust the people of the future is not homosexual behaviour, but homophobia, cruelty, and the paranoid rhetoric of people like Paul Cameron. Hopefully these already do. �

Joshua F Leach – – currently a student at the University of Chicago – is a writer and human rights advocate.

Independent World report

March/April 2010

25