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Hiding from Humanity: Disgust, Shame, and the Law, by Martha C. Nussbaum

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Hiding from Humanity: Disgust, Shame, and the Law, by Martha C. Nussbaum

Hiding from Humanity: Disgust, Shame, and the Law, by Martha C. Nussbaum

Sometimes overtly and sometimes covertly, many contemporary legal and social debates actually turn on questions of disgust and shame. On the overt side, there are increasing calls to have drunk drivers or sexual offenders be “shamed” in public. On the covert side, arguments against gay marriage and pornography commonly rely upon personal notions about what is disgusting, repugnant, and impure. Are shame and disgust legitimate bases for law or public policy?


Title: Hiding from Humanity: Disgust, Shame, and the Law
Author: Martha C. Nussbaum
Publisher: Princeton University Press
ISBN: 0691095264

• Tackles interesting issues not usually discussed

• A bit academic for general audiences

• Explores how concepts of shame and disgust are being used in politics and law today
• Argues that while emotions have a place in law, shame and disgust do not
• Explains that shame and disgust do more to separate people than to reaffirm common humanity

Book Review

The relevance of emotion for the law is undeniable. It would be impossible to completely remove emotions from the law and transform it into a tool of pure logical analyses — and it would be a serious error to even try. Humans are emotional animals and they form political communities for important emotional reasons. That said, however, not all emotions are created equal and not all emotions should be accorded a respected status.

Compassion, fear, and love may all serve valid roles in the law; disgust and shame, however, do not — and that’s the argument advanced by Martha C. Nussbaum in her book Hiding from Humanity: Disgust, Shame, and the Law.

Nussbaum’s basic thesis is that some emotions enhance and affirm our humanity, but others like disgust and shame actually attack our common humanity because they presume some superhuman or supernatural purity which is unattainable, thus leading to the stigmatization of groups thought to have fallen farthest from grace: the disabled, gays, women, Jews, and so forth.

Nussbaum directly addresses arguments offered from several different sources which attempt to defend either disgust or shame as a valuable legal tool. Shame, for example, is defended by communitarians who believe that individual rights often need to be subordinated to the needs and unity of the community — and if that means disregarding the dignity of a person who has transgressed community norms, then so be it.

The defense of disgust seems to be playing a larger role in political and philosophical debates than defense of shame, though. This may be because opponents of issues such as gay marriage and pornography are unable to advance very far by using the theological arguments which they personally prefer, and the notion that there is “wisdom” in “disgust” appears to offer a productive alternative.

Nussbaum makes it clear, though, that the arguments being used either don’t achieve what is desired (they don’t demonstrate that there is any legal value in disgust) or they prove too much (accepting them would justify banning far more than defenders anticipate).

The purpose of Nussbaum’s book isn’t to expound upon abstract philosophy, however, but rather to explore the psychological and philosophical conditions of political liberalism. Nussbaum argues that using shame and disgust separates, stigmatizes, and undermines the interpersonal cohesion that makes a community possible. If we understand that the thought-content behind disgust is unreasonable, then we should seek out alternatives which reaffirm, rather than attack, the essential dignity of every individual human being.

    “[T]he dangers posed by disgust and shame are in many respects especially antithetical to the values of a liberal society. For these emotions typically express themselves through the subordination of both individuals and groups based on features of their way of life. [...]”
Hiding from Humanity: Disgust, Shame, and the Law, by Martha C. Nussbaum

Hiding from Humanity: Disgust, Shame, and the Law, by Martha C. Nussbaum

    “[T]he analysis of disgust and shame...shows us that human beings typically have a problematic relationship to their mortality and animality, and that this problematic relationship causes not just inner tension, but also aggression toward others. If ideals of respect and reciprocity are to have a chance of prevailing, they must contend against the forces of narcissism and misanthropy that these emotions so frequently involve.”

When we acknowledge the dignity of others, even those whose actions or existence bother us, we make an important step towards an inclusive and liberal frame of mind. When we deny the essential dignity of others, we are adopting an unreasonable and illiberal frame of mind. There is a strong connection between Nussbaum’s position and the traditional Christian conception of every person being made in the image of God, but it’s curious that Nussbuam’s position is most likely to be opposed by conservative Christians who probably don’t understand the path they are taking when they begin to employ disgust as a tool of legal analysis.

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