Monday, August 2, 2010

Repugnance and/or disgust

I like to distinguish what I've called repugnant transactions from those that elicit disgust. By repugnant transactions I mean transactions that some people want to engage in and that others don't want them to (e.g. same sex marriage, or buying or selling a kidney, or ordering horse meat at a U.S. restaurant). One sign that a transaction is viewed as repugnant by a sufficiently big part of the population is if it is illegal. Disgusting transactions most often don't elicit legislation (except in a consumer protection way), e.g. it's illegal in CA to offer to sell horse meat for human consumption, but not, say, spit: the difference being that some people would like to buy and eat horse meat.

However there's no denying that part of what makes some transactions repugnant to some people is that they find them disgusting (see e.g. Martha Nussbaum on same sex marriage). There have been recent reports in the press and blogosphere on attempts to link physiological indicators of disgust to, among other things, political proclivities.

Nicholas Kristof in the NY Times gives a quick overview of some conclusions of this sort: Our Politics May Be All in Our Head

Mark Liberman at Language Log takes a closer look: Physiological politics, and suggests that at least some of the results could be artifacts of the experiment. (He has a followup here: Icktheology.)

In the context of organ transplantation, I've noted that the repugnance to sales of organs is hard to equate with a visceral disgust reaction, since there isn't repugnance to transplants in general. There may of course be specific exceptions to that, see e.g. this article in the American Journal of Transplantation:

"Specific Unwillingness to Donate Eyes: The Impact of Disfigurement, Knowledge and Procurement on Corneal Donation" (p 657-663)M. Lawlor, I. Kerridge, R. Ankeny, T. A. Dobbins, F. BillsonPublished Online: Jan 29 2010 2:23PM

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