April 27, 2012

Projectivism and the Moral Relevance of Disgust

Robert Ferrari, Advisor: Lisa Bergin

In his 1998 paper, “The Wisdom of Repugnance”, bioethicist Leon Kass argues that our reactions of disgust at human cloning can serve as justification for condemning it as immoral. While Kass’ argument focuses on cloning, it could easily be taken up more perniciously against homosexuality and interracial marriage. Feminist critiques of disgust-based judgments cite historical examples where disgust reactions were used to try to validate the discrimination against socially disadvantaged groups. Presumably, then, if we wish to tout tolerance and acceptance as among our values, we must reject the use of sentiments of disgust to justify moral claims. One obvious way to do this is to dismiss any use of sentiments in ethical thinking, and to propose instead a purely reason-based theory. However, such a position is seen by many philosophers to be untenable. For it is attitudes, emotions and desires which motivate human decision-making, and therefore no decision can ever be made by reason alone. Projectivism, a promising sentiment-based theory in meta-ethics, holds that valuing something morally (or otherwise) involves an aspect of the mind which is distinct from our rational and descriptive faculties, and that moral propositions such as ‘X is wrong’ express the speaker’s endorsement of a particular sentiment or attitude towards X rather than describing any actual properties of X. In this project I take up projectivist theories and use them to make sense of why it is possible to reject moral appeals to repugnance from an ethics that is nonetheless grounded in human sentiment and psychology. To this end, consistent with philosophical methodology, I examine projectivist positions and their opponents, and use this examination to inform my analysis of psychological research on disgust. I conclude that a projectivist interpretation of this research supports feminist arguments that disgust should not be considered ethically relevant.