Getting Beyond the “Ick Factor” in the Gay Marriage Debate

Getting Beyond the “Ick Factor” in the Gay Marriage Debate April 20, 2009

In one of my early posts on same sex marriage, I wrote that I used to be in the “natural law” camp of persons who said that, thought there’s not an overwhelming amount of verses in the Bible about homosexuality (six, to be exact), there’s a strong argument to be made from Genesis. It’s the old “Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve.” Or, as I wrote in the earlier post, “The plumbing’s not right.” For a funny take on this argument, watch the first few minutes of this video, then read more from me after the jump…

I’ve got to be honest that, earlier in my life, part of my opposition to gay marriage stemmed from what moral philosophers call the “wisdom of repugnance,” a.k.a., the “Ick Factor” or the “Yuck Factor.” Leon Kass introduced the phrase “wisdom of repugnance” in 1997 in an article on the bioethics of cloning [link is to a PDF]. He wrote,

“Offensive.” “Grotesque.” “Revolting.” “Repugnant.” “Repulsive.” These are the words most commonly heard regarding the prospect of human cloning. Such reactions come both from the man or woman in the street and from the intellectuals, from believers and atheists, from humanists and scientists. Even Dolly’s creator has said he “would find it offensive” to clone a human being.

But the idea that what we find repugnant affects our moral standards has long been understood by philosophers. Kass jut put a fine point on it.

Revulsion is not an argument; and some of yesterday’s repugnances are today calmly accepted — though, one must add, not always for the better. In crucial cases, however, repugnance is the emotional expression of deep wisdom, beyond reason’s power fully to articulate it. Can anyone really give an argument fully adequate to the horror which is father-daughter incest (even with consent), or having sex with animals, or mutilating a corpse, or eating human flesh, or even just (just!) raping or murdering another human being? Would anybody’s failure to give full rational justification for his or her revulsion at these practices make that revulsion ethically suspect? Not at all. On the contrary, we are suspicious of those who think that they can rationalize away our horror, say, by trying to explain the enormity of incest with arguments only about the genetic risks of inbreeding.

Kass argues, and others have joined the chorus, that while the Yuck Factor isn’t a rational argument, per se, it does tell us something about morals at a sub-conscious, pre-reflective level.

But I think the same sex marriage debate is a case-in-point about why this kind of thinking is fallacious (and the above video is Exhibit A). What Kass fails to take into account is how what we find “icky” is socially conditioned. Take for instance the eating of a dog, which some people in Asia find acceptable but I find repugnant. Or wiping your ass with your hand, which is common in some parts of India. Or eating a hamburger, which is repugnant to Hindus. (Some of you found it repugnant that I used the word, “ass,” in this paragraph.)

When homosex was less commonly referred to in our society, it caused some of us heterosexuals to cringe when we’d see two men kiss in a film, or imagine the act of homosex. But in ancient Rome, no such revulsion would have occured, since homosex was culturally ubiquitous and generally accepted.

And now that gays and lesbians are more comfortably public about their orientation, not to mention sitcoms, movies, and celebrities bringing it to our consciousness, the Ick Factor is going away. Many who oppose gay marriage, like Rod Dreher, argue that they have gay friends and that the act of homosex does not affect their stance on the issue. Others, like Andrew Sullivan, disagree and charge them with latent repugnance.

In either case, I’ll confess that repugnance for homosex did affect my earlier opposition to GLBT rights and privileges. I’ve had to disabuse myself of those feelings and look at the issue more objectively. That’s been part of my journey toward support of SSM marriage.

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