October 5, 2009 | 23 comments
Martha Nussbaum’s unusual argument about opposition to gay rights.
From Disgust to Humanity: Sexual Orientation and Constitutional
By Martha C. Nussbaum
(Oxford University Press, 256 pages, $21.95)
In ways that are inspiring to some and infuriating to others, many Americans continue to oppose the “gay rights” movement and “same-sex marriage.” To the consternation of secular liberals, much of this opposition is grounded in religious faith. But no one should exaggerate the intensity of this opposition; most Americans, for instance, do not hate homosexuals. Indeed, it is more reasonable to suppose that most religious opponents of the gay rights movement accept the words commonly attributed to Saint Augustine: “Hate the sin, but love the sinner.”
Admittedly, those seven words could apply to many different sins. But in view of how quickly the issue of gay rights appeared on the national political landscape, the vast majority of Americans deserve credit for responding calmly and civilly to the demands of gay activists. Those opposing the gay agenda have stuck to their principles, and in doing so, they have not been nasty or vicious.
Of course, one can oppose same-sex marriage and gay rights on grounds other than religion. Philosophic arguments against them have been made, and will continue to be made. Yet the teachings of traditional Judaism and Christianity on human sexuality cannot be ignored, because few persons are philosophers and most Americans identify with what is commonly called the “Judeo-Christian” ethical tradition.
In her new book, From Disgust to Humanity, Martha Nussbaum offers an unusual argument about opposition to gay rights. She wants to show that much of that opposition arises from what she calls the “politics of disgust”—a politics based on visceral reactions and disreputable attempts at psychological manipulation. According to Nussbaum, those who promote this kind of politics try to provoke feelings of disgust in their audience by disclosing facts about the sexual practices of homosexuals. In turn, the audience directs those feelings toward gay men and lesbians. Nussbaum’s goal is to document the politics of disgust as an influential though largely unnoticed phenomenon in our time. She also criticizes it as unworthy of the American political tradition.
As the book’s subtitle suggests, Nussbaum contrasts the politics of disgust with “the politics of humanity.” The latter purports to be a compelling blend of reason, sympathy, moral imagination, and political principle. Although she avoids mentioning it, the “politics of humanity” has affinities with President Barack Obama’s “empathy jurisprudence,” an approach to judging that American liberals discussed with much earnestness in 2008 and 2009, but which lost much of its cachet when Supreme Court justice Sonia Sotomayor disavowed it during her Senate confirmation hearings in 2009.
This book appears in the “Inalienable Rights” series of Oxford University Press, and its author is among the most prominent liberal academics of our time. Nussbaum holds an endowed professorship at the University of Chicago, with appointments in the Law School, philosophy department, and Divinity School. Giving much attention to legal and constitutional questions, she wants judges to endorse something like “the politics of humanity” when deciding cases involving the putative rights of gays and lesbians. She also tries to persuade other readers about the need for this new kind of politics.
Taken as a whole, however, Nussbaum’s arguments are weak. Although intelligible, her account of the “politics of disgust” lacks coherence, and “the politics of humanity” betrays itself by not treating more sympathetically those opposed to the gay rights movement. Finally, the book is marred by factual errors and inconsistencies.
IN THE PREFACE, Nussbaum writes that the politics of disgust has been used “for a long time” in opposing gay rights. But that view cannot be right. The most prominent initiative in the gay rights movement thus far relates to same-sex marriage, and it made inroads only in the 1990s. Before then, no one needed a broad strategy to oppose gay rights, because there was no national movement to oppose. (The AIDS outbreak in the 1980s led to demands for greater medical resources, but not to national demands for “marriage equality.”) In fact, for most of the 20th century, gay rights and the gay lifestyle were rarely discussed in public because it was considered unseemly or vulgar to talk about intimate life there. Such strictures applied to everyone, as Rochelle Gurstein has shown in her remarkable book The Repeal of Reticence (1996).
Even when confining her attention to new developments, Nussbaum fails to show that the politics of disgust is widely used today. She singles out three men as advocates of this kind of politics: Lord Patrick Devlin, a British jurist; Leon Kass, chair of the President’s Council on Bioethics from 2001 to 2005; and Paul Cameron, leader of the Family Research Institute, based in Colorado. But the influence of the first two men on “the politics of disgust” has surely been de minimis. Devlin was born in 1905 and died in 1992, and he was not an activist of any sort. Kass’s writings on the “wisdom of repugnance” have more to do with human cloning than homosexuality. Nussbaum concedes this, and she does not cite any book or essay by Kass devoted exclusively to the question of gay rights.
Paul Cameron’s writings stand apart from those of Devlin and Kass, and if we adhere to Nussbaum’s initial account, we could say that Cameron engages in the politics of disgust. But Nussbaum becomes so casual in her use of the word “disgust” that her narrative loses credibility. The word is used to describe the reaction of children upon learning basic facts about human sexuality; the reaction of adults when apprised of what a colonoscopy entails; and the initial reaction of most people when they see someone with a physical deformity. “Disgust” is also said to figure prominently in the Supreme Court’s ruling in Bowers v. Hardwick (1986), in the Hindu tradition’s designation of certain persons as dalit (“untouchable”), and in religious conflicts in the West during the early modern era.
Furthermore, Nussbaum contradicts herself in describing the pervasiveness of the politics of disgust in the United States today. We are told that “large segments” of the Christian right “openly” practice this kind of politics, but a few paragraphs later we are informed that the politics of disgust has “gone underground” because it is politically incorrect. It is then described as still being dominant, though it now faces “unprecedented challenges” from the politics of humanity.
Nussbaum would have done well to consider the religious grounds for opposing the gay rights movement, since she underestimates the relevance of the Judeo-Christian tradition for the matters at hand. She suggests, incredibly, that the only strictures in the Bible pertaining to homosexuality are found in the Book of Leviticus. Has she managed to wipe completely the story of Sodom and Gomorrah from her mind?
NUSSBAUM IS MORE CONSISTENT when writing about the “politics of humanity.” Nonetheless, her arguments are predictably liberal. She maintains that the American political tradition is libertarian in matters of “personal morality,” especially regarding sexual conduct. She applies John Stuart Mill’s “harm principle” to various questions of law and public policy, as if that principle has now become part of the Constitution. Like most proponents of gay rights, Nussbaum broadly sees sexual relations between consenting adults as “self-regarding” conduct.
Until fairly recently, however, no responsible judge in the United States could accept that view. The turning point was the Supreme Court’s invention of a “right to privacy” in cases such as Griswold v. Connecticut (1965) and Eisenstadt v. Baird (1972). Here the Court struck down regulations on the use and distribution of contraceptives — regulations that were initially enacted in the late 19th century. The Court held that they violated an “unenumerated” right to constitutional privacy, and in striking down the laws, it effectively legitimized the sexual revolution (as did Roe v. Wade, decided in 1973).
A man of faith in a godless age is hitting Americans where it hurts.
Mr. and Mrs. American Spectator Reader, let P.J. O’Rourke talk sense to your kids.
In Britain, defending your property can get you life.
The debacle of this president’s administration is both a cause and a symptom of the decline of American values. Unless Congress impeaches him, that decline will go on unchecked. An eminent jurist surveys the damage and assesses the chances for the recovery of our culture.
It won’t take long for conservatives to scratch this presidential wannabe off their 2008 scorecard.
The American Christmas, like the songs that celebrate it, makes room for everybody under the rainbow. Is that why so many people seem to be hostile to it?
Was the President done in by the economy, or by the politics of the economy?
H/T to National Review Online