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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
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
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
in the here and now, with one eye turned fabric. It is a moral standard we all share, really so different from the arguments
toward posterity. We must remember and to violate it by making homosexuality used by the more aggressive homophobes
that history will judge all of us, whether legal would destroy our collective life. and anti-gay activists on the ground, who
or not it remembers our names. Kass makes a rather different case, also practise the politics of disgust.
One person whom history will judge in many ways even stronger than that of She quotes the astonishing words
kindly is Martha Nussbaum, a major Devlin. He does not simply argue that we of anti-gay activist Paul Cameron, for
political philosopher at the University of ought to respect the feelings of the man instance, who accused homosexuals of
Chicago. The Ernst Freund Professor of on the omnibus, but that those feelings drinking blood and ingesting faeces. In
Law and Ethics, who has authored diverse are necessarily correct. They contain an one interview conducted in the 1980s,
works on moral psychology; gender inherent wisdom which keeps us from Cameron waxed nostalgic at the memory
and social justice; the ethical life of the transgressing our God-given human of how “homosexuals were hung three
ancient Greeks; and much else. nature. Implied, if not explicitly stated, hundred years ago in our society.” A few
She springs from an intellectual lines earlier, he urged the authorities to
line of descent that stretches from the “screen and quarantine [homosexuals]
nineteenth century abolitionists and until we come up with a cure.”
prison reformers to the twentieth century This is of course where the politics
civil rights activists and conscientious of disgust ultimately leads us. If we
objectors. Just as these prior activists regard widespread feelings of disgust as
recognised the moral requirements of legitimate moral barometers, we may
their time, so Nussbaum has put her finger well arrive at some nasty conclusions.
on our generation’s great moral choice: Disgust is a notoriously unreliable
do we extend equal rights and sympathy emotion, and every time it has been put
to homosexuals, or, do we regard them as into political practice, it has been used to
base, vile, or unworthy? violate the equal treatment and dignity of
In From disgust to humanity, Nussbaum underprivileged groups.
provides an answer. Nussbaum points to caste hierarchy
Nussbaum begins by taking aim at two in India, anti-Semitism in Nazi Germany,
major thinkers who practise what she and racism in the United States: all
calls “the politics of disgust.” These are cases in which some groups have been
the British lawyer, Patrick Devlin, and the stigmatised as inherently putrid and
contemporary US bioethicist, Leon Kass. disgusting. There is generally no evidence
By “the politics of disgust,” Nussbaum to back up such assertions, but none is
refers to the belief that strong feelings of required. Every advertising agent can tell
distaste or repugnance are good reasons you that reason has little impact on our
to legally ban certain kinds of behaviour. From disgust to humanity fears and desires.
Devlin expressed such a belief in mid- Sexual orientation and constitutional law Nussbaum does not spurn the entire
century Britain, and used it specifically By Martha C Nussbaum notion of disgust. We may well feel
Oxford University Press, 2010.
to target homosexuality. He declared disgust at unjust acts, cruelty, or sadism.

24 March/April 2010 Independent World report


We are disgusted when people eat dogs same thing on behalf of other targeted
or cats or make coats out of their fur. groups. We are disgusted when
However, in all of these cases, harm is There is no doubt whatsoever in my
being done to the innocent, which makes mind that future generations will regard
people eat dogs or cats or
it a qualitatively different situation. today’s opponents of gay rights the way make coats out of their fur.
In the case of homosexual acts, the we now regard Southern segregationists
only harm being inflicted is upon the or those who opposed women’s suffrage.
However, in all of these
worldview of homophobes. Just as the The conservatives of tomorrow will be cases, harm is being done to
feelings of racists need not be taken into embarrassed that they did not support gay
consideration when deciding to grant rights when the choice mattered. Yet, they
the innocent, which makes
rights to African Americans, so it is in the will still oppose whatever humanitarian it a qualitatively different
case of gay rights. issue happens to be significant at that
With her characteristic mixture future date – animal rights, perhaps, or
situation. In the case
of moral philosophy and detailed something else entirely. of homosexual acts,
psychology, Nussbaum dissects the Does this process ever end? From
emotional landscape of disgust. She what I have written above, it may sound
the only harm being
reveals that our disgust at primary objects that I am perfectly sanguine about the inflicted is upon the
– such as faeces, blood, and bodily fluids – endless march of new and better rights.
is evolutionarily useful. We feel horror at However, I ultimately feel that this is not
worldview of homophobes.
those things which remind us of our own enough, as does Nussbaum. Just as the feelings of racists
mortality and vulnerability because we Rights are necessary, but they are
rightly care about our own survival. not sufficient. In today’s world, the
need not be taken into
However, there is nothing rational international community has supposedly consideration when deciding
or natural about repugnance for specific granted rights to every single human
human groups. Just as people from India being. However, we constantly find that
to grant rights to African
would not understand the feelings of people’s most basic rights to life and Americans, so it is in the
white racists in the United States, so too liberty are violated on a daily basis. They
Westerners would not understand Indian are poor, they starve, and they die in
case of gay rights.
caste prejudice. Those hatreds which a conditions of squalor and injustice.
society regards as natural or timeless are It seems to me that in such a world, standards of the community. The
really nothing of the kind. more rights granted on paper will not standards of any human group can and
Rather, it is useful for each society to solve our problems. My hope lies more must change. Such change need not undo
transfer disgust at mortality and decay in the direction of moral regeneration the cohesion of all society, in fact, it can
to a specific group. This helps us to and egalitarian social justice. Nussbaum’s reduce conflict by helping us to recognise
absolve ourselves and to forget our own solution, which I greatly admire, also goes each other’s worth.
weakness and humanity. When Cameron beyond mere paper rights: it is the politics I believe we are already entering a
accuses homosexuals of grotesque sexual of humanity – a daily practice of moral world in which most people do not feel
practices, he allows heterosexuals to education which emphasises imaginative any particular disgust at the thought of
ignore the reality of their own sex lives. sympathy with the plight of others. homosexuality. After all, homosexuals
This is projective disgust, declares However, one should not spurn the play a large role now in our social and
Nussbaum, and it is a dreadful guide to importance of rights to this ultimate cultural life. I am sure that what will
political behaviour. It was used in Nazi goal, as legal rights may actually help us revolt and disgust the people of the
propaganda to generate anti-Semitic attain it in the long run. We have seen future is not homosexual behaviour, but
feeling. It has also been used to restrict throughout history that legal changes homophobia, cruelty, and the paranoid
the rights of women, minorities, and often precede moral changes. For rhetoric of people like Paul Cameron.
many other groups throughout history. instance, African Americans were once Hopefully these already do. �
Of course, Leon Kass would surely regarded as objects of disgust in the US.
not recognise the wisdom of projective Racism today, though still rampant, does
disgust. He would also no doubt reject not generally take this form. People are
any association with Nazism or racism or far more likely to feel disgust and fear
apartheid. In this, he reflects an age-old at the sight of lynchings or Klu Klux
conservative tendency which has existed Klan imagery than at unoffending black
as long as there has been moral progress. people. This is genuine moral progress,
He retroactively admits that defenders not merely a legal revolution.
of human equality were correct in their This is, therefore, the best argument
past struggles, against racism or fascism, to marshal against thinkers like Devlin Joshua F Leach – – currently a student at
say, yet he continues to oppose those who worry that moral change, even the University of Chicago – is a writer and
movements in the present which seek the moral progress, will destroy the ethical human rights advocate.

Independent World report March/April 2010 25