The Repugnance of "Repugnance" —

The Repugnance of “Repugnance” — We're all now wearily familiar with Leon Kass's “wisdom of repugnance” arguments. I want to point out a class of cases in which these arguments (if we're charitable enough to consider them arguments) commit the fallacy of begging the question, that is, of using the conclusion as a premise in the argument, merely assuming what needs to be proved.

For just about any intervention in the genome, Kass's tactic is to say that the intervention itself, or one if its allegedly likely consequences, strikes our native moral sense as repugnant. This, of course, assumes that the human moral sense is constituted in such a way as to deliver authoritative judgments that we have good reason to trust, rather than delivering manifestations of, say, ingrained prejudice.

Now, suppose that I believe that utilitarianism is true (just as an example), and that we morally ought to be totally impartial about the welfare of persons. People starving in Africa count exactly as much as your own children, or your beloved grandmother, or yourself. And so buying a new SUV to take the kids to soccer practice is exactly morally equivalent to standing idly by while a baby drowns helplessly in a puddle at your feet. The money spent for the SUV could have saved countless lives. But our native moral sense is a more or less accidental product of the course human evolution happened to take, and it happens to have a built-in bias for advancing the welfare of our genetic relatives and the members of our local tribe. So our evolutionary endowment, our moral sense as it is presently configured, interferes with our ability to recognize the equal importance of everyone's welfare, and with our motivation to provide for strangers on an equal basis as our own friends and family. We are constitutionally unable to do our moral duty. UNTIL NOW! Advances in genetic engineering (just suppose) have made it possible to reconfigure the human moral sense for the total impartiality utilitarianism demands. So morality demands that we manipulate the human genome to make a truly moral world finally possible (although our moral sense naturally makes it hard to see that this is so).

How can Kass (or an intellectual clone thereof) reply to this? Suppose he says, “We all agree that manipulating the genome to alter the human moral sense is morally repugnant.” Well, then he's begging the question. My toy utilitarian is challenging the authority of our moral sense. The claim is that we need to alter the moral sense, because it now gets in the way of being genuinely moral. An appeal to the moral sense assumes what needs to be shown: that the moral sense as it is presently constituted has rational authority.

You could even make it much simpler and just do the following: Make a list of all the very morally worthy and life-enhancing procedures Kass finds repugnant. Now, declare that what we need to do is re-engineer people so that we don't find those things repugnant anymore, because those kinds of unreasoned sentiments prevent us from improving our lot here on Earth. How can a Kassian respond? The only non-fallacious course is to argue for the moral authority of the human moral sense as it is presently constituted, without assuming its authority in the argument. And that's what I want from Kass, and from all those who argue via “the argument from 'yuck.'” And that's what we never get.