Wisdom of repugnance

The term wisdom of repugnance, or the yuck' factor', describes the belief that an intuitive (or "deep-seated") negative response to some thing, idea or practice should be interpreted as evidence for the intrinsically harmful or evil character of that thing. Furthermore, it refers to the notion that wisdom may manifest itself in feelings of disgust towards anything which lacks "goodness" or wisdom, though the feelings or the reasoning of such 'wisdom' may not be immediately explicable through reason.

Origin and usage

The term was coined in 1997 by Leon Kass, chairman (2001-2005) of the President's Council on Bioethics, in an article in The New Republic, which was later expanded into a further (2001) article in the same magazine, and also incorporated into his 2002 book Life, Liberty, and the Defense of Dignity. Kass stated that disgust was not an argument per se, but went on to say that "in crucial cases...repugnance is the emotional expression of deep wisdom, beyond reason's power fully to articulate it."

The term remains largely confined to discussions of bioethics, and is somewhat related to the term "yuck factor". However, unlike the latter, it is used almost exclusively by those who accept its underlying premise; i.e., that repugnance does, in fact, indicate wisdom. It is thus often viewed as loaded language, and is primarily used by certain bioconservatives to justify their position.

The wisdom of repugnance is often used to justify so-called "knee-jerk" negative reactions to cloning (particularly of humans), genetic engineering, and other contentious subjects. One who adheres to this thesis may consider it unnecessary ("in crucial cases") to examine an issue logically, or to debate dissenting arguments.

The term has since migrated to other controversies, such as same-sex marriage, abortion, pornography, alternative sexualities, coprophagia, and cannibalism. In all cases, it expresses the view that one's "gut reaction" is sufficient to discredit a sufficiently objectionable premise.


The wisdom of repugnance has been widely criticized, both as an example of a fallacious appeal to emotion and for an underlying premise which seems to reject rationalism. Although mainstream science concedes that a sense of disgust most likely evolved as a useful defense mechanism (e.g. in that it tends to prevent or prohibit potentially harmful behaviour such as incest, cannibalism, and coprophagia), social psychologists question whether the instinct can serve any moral or logical value when removed from the context in which it was originally acquired.

Some critics such as Martha Nussbaum explicitly oppose the concept of a disgust-based morality. Nussbaum notes that disgust has been used throughout history as a justification for persecution. For example, at various times racism, antisemitism, sexism, and homophobia have all been driven by popular revulsion.

Other critics base their criticism on a broader defense of rationalism. Stephen Jay Gould has remarked that "our prejudices often overwhelm our limited information. [They] are so venerable, so reflexive, so much a part of our second nature, that we never stop to recognize their status as social decisions with radical alternatives — and we view them instead as given and obvious truths."

British bioethicist John Harris has replied to Kass's view by arguing that, "there is no necessary connection between phenomena, attitudes, or actions that make us uneasy, or even those that disgust us, and those phenomena, attitudes, and actions that there are good reasons for judging unethical. Nor does it follow that those things we are confident are unethical must be prohibited by legislation or regulation."

The word squick was created within BDSM subculture in reaction to this sort of reasoning, and denotes a "gut reaction" of disgust without the implication of any sort of actual moral judgement.

See also


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