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11.3.05

Thoughts On Repugnance

Joe Carter offers a short three-part series on the "wisdom of repugnance," defending the use of the "ick factor" in making moral decisions (particularly in human cloning and related technology). He points out that sometimes repugnance acts as a crude heuristic when we don't have the ability to make a rational determination -- for example, disgust kept us alive for the millennia before the germ theory of disease was developed. On the other hand, he agrees that in many cases the "ick factor" is misguided -- see, for example, his opening anecdote about the Fuegian tribesman disgusted by Darwin's cold meat. The wisdom of repugnance is a sort of limited version of the precautionary principle -- "don't do anything disgusting unless you're sure it's safe," rather than "don't do anything unless you're sure it's safe." In both cases, some middle course is clearly correct, as neither extreme position (taking disgust as the final word, or hubristically assuming logic and science have all the answers already) is tenable. Unfortunately his posts don't do much to indicate just how the line should be drawn. This is perhaps an insoluble dilemma, as it's somewhat odd to think of an objective decision mechanism that takes intuition as one of its inputs.

It's also important to look at the whole picture. Disgusting activities can't be considered in isolation from each other. In some cases, we must overcome an immediate ick in order to resolve a longer-term ick -- say, when you take out a particularly nasty bag of trash. It's in this framework that I would place a repugnance-based analysis of cloning. I think most of us would agree that debilitating diseases are repugnant. Yet these diseases could be alleviated by cloning. For reasons like those stated above, it may be illogical to expect a clear method for weighing competing disgusts against each other. But this formulation at least shows that even a very strong presumption in favor of obeying our feelings of repugnance does not resolve the question in favor of banning cloning.

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