Thursday, January 7, 2010

Martha Nussbaum on same sex marriage

Martha Nussbaum expresses the view that opposition to same sex marriage is related to physical disgust, when interviewed in the Sunday NY Times Magazine, about her forthcoming book “From Disgust to Humanity: Sexual Orientation and Constitutional Law,”: Gross National Politics .

I'm skeptical. Steve Leider and I, in a forthcoming article in the American Journal of Transplantation, report on a representative-sample survey on the repugnance of buying and selling kidneys for transplant. We start off this way:

"The demand for transplantable kidneys exceeds the supply. If kidneys were a purchased commodity, the gap between supply and demand would mean the price was too low. But in most countries, a market for organs is regarded as repugnant, and such markets are widely illegal. We use “repugnant” in its economic sense – in a repugnant transaction the participants are willing to transact, but third parties disapprove and wish to prevent the transaction (rather than in its psychological sense of eliciting disgust among potential participants). Hence repugnant transactions are often illegal (Roth, 2007)."

There's no evidence at all that kidney transplantation arouses either repugnance or disgust, and so the repugnance of kidney markets almost surely doesn't arise from the kind of automatic disgust that people experience when they encounter feces, for example. I'm skeptical that same sex marriage does either; how else to explain that many people who object to same sex marriage don't object to civil unions for same sex couples? But I haven't done an empirical study of same sex marriage, so I can only speculate on that. (I'll have to read Nussbaum's book when it comes out.)

See my earlier post, MA sues to overturn Defense of Marriage Act , which quotes from an earlier Nussbaum article, on the changing sentiment about interracial marriage.

My concern with confounding (economist style) repugnance with innate disgust is not because I don't think that people who want you to oppose some repugnant transaction don't try to recruit feelings of disgust, in themselves and in others. But I guess real disgust, on an evolutionary preference level, is harder to overcome, e.g. there won't soon be demand for chocolate fudge shaped like feces, for instance. (I say that despite this report from Catalonia, so I could be wrong about this...)


dWj said...

I think most of the people who support civil unions but oppose marriage for same-sex couples have vaguely Hayekian reasons for doing so; there's a sense that institutions that have developed a certain way may contain wisdom that we're not capable of consciously grasping. Recognizing same-sex marriages in a handful of states for several years may provide an illustration, within the limits imposed by confounding factors, of what kind of impact the change has, and might affect public opinion down the road; on the other hand, it may simply reduce repugnance due to familiarity. (A "normalizing" effect.)

dWj said...

Incidentally, I'm not sure all the things you've labeled "repugnance" are usefully lumped together; in particular, I think at the heart of objections to markets in medicine, especially donor tissues, and prostitution, there's a sort of repugnance about money that's involved. You can point to locations with norms about men indirectly transferring money to women for sex, or people making decisions with implications both for health and wealth in which they trade the two against each other, and you can make a rational case to anyone who's smart and willing to listen that these things already have their prices, and that the markets are simply inefficient, but a lot of people separate "money" from a lot of other activities (often to the detriment of their nonfiscal happiness, I think; I think a lot of excess weight people place on earning money originates from the same place as repugnance toward money-mediated markets).

So it might be that in the case of same-sex marriage, there really is a visceral "repugnance" (in the non-economist's sense), even if that isn't required for market repugnances. Horse meat bans might straddle the two; I think people who oppose the sale of horse meat would also oppose people raising it for their own consumption, but might feel they can only justify the invasion of privacy to outlaw it where it becomes commerce.

I'm sure I'll be thinking more about this, though.