In Defense of Disgust

One of the funniest men who ever lived, W.C. Fields, whose mask of comic malevolence will live forever, was asked once if he liked children.  He replied instantly:  “I like children—fried.”   His view of dogs and women was scarcely any better.  Women he regarded rather as elephants: “I like to look at ‘em, but I wouldn’t want to own one.”   His detestations, in fact, were delightfully democratic.  “I am free of all prejudice,” he airily announced.  “I hate every one equally.”

Now unless your sense of humor is a bit Presbyterian, this is awfully funny stuff.  But only because we know that he’s not being serious.  Indeed, if he really were serious—that is, if the misanthropic impulse were not part of a larger gag but the genuine article—such curmudgeonly conceits would hardly inspire laughter.  More like loathing for a man so twisted and perverse as to treat little children like so many pieces of fried chicken.  Or women as no more than a pachyderm on parade.  Certainly there was nothing funny about the Death Camps of the Third Reich, which succeeded in cooking great numbers of women and children (men also) in carefully stoked gas ovens.

The point is, we find the idea of human sacrifice, of cannibalism, fundamentally repellent.  We viscerally recoil from so barbarous and bloodthirsty a practice.   We may take a certain vicarious pleasure in witnessing the eating habits of Hannibal Lector, but we do not, for both profound and obvious reasons, wish to dine with him.  In other words, in treating such derangements with the disgust they deserve, we testify to the “wisdom of repugnance,” to use an inspired phrase coined by Leon Kass.

However, we need to ask ourselves a very hard question.  Is our revulsion for such reprehensible behavior, not to mention our contempt for those who indulge it, a function only of feeling, of untutored emotion?  Or is it rather something so rooted in right reason that not to feel that way is to confess arrant and complete moral bankruptcy?

The distinction is not a light one.  C.S. Lewis has identified the salient issue in a classic work published more than sixty years ago, The Abolition of Man.  There he illustrates the point with the famous episode from the poet Coleridge, who observed two tourists at a waterfall, the first pronouncing it “sublime,” the other merely “pretty.”  Coleridge, in esteeming the first, while execrating the second, was making the point, which until very recently almost everyone shared, that to call a waterfall merely pretty is to venture an opinion so aesthetically deficient as to arouse contempt in every sentient breast.  The disgust felt, moreover, was not a function of taste or temperament; nor was it any sort of time-bound affair, which is to say, an eccentricity peculiar to 19th century Romantic poets.

Ah, but something very strange has happened to overturn such tablets of moral and aesthetic judgment.  Lewis calls it “the poison of subjectivism,” the triumph of which has left so many human and ethical moorings upended.  Same-sex marriage, for example, which did not exist during his lifetime (Lewis died in 1963) is now seen by growing numbers of people as a mere matter of choice between two consenting adults.   What right has the state, or ordinary citizenry for that matter, to tell two people that they may not love one another?  Or, to raise yet another specter, what about incest?  Surely that immemorial taboo needs to topple, too.  After all, if there is real consent in place, what’s the problem? (Or necrophilia, for heaven sake, where the matter of consent would seem no longer to matter at all!  See what a brave new world we have come to?)

Lewis, of course, remains fiercely reactionary in his refusal to go along.  How, he asks, can anyone be truly righteous, unless his mind and will conform to the objective order of value, of being itself?  If the finality of all education, to recall the teaching of Aristotle, is to impart to the pupil a liking for what is likable, an aversion for what is not, it is because the universe is quite simply structured that way.  “To call children delightful or old men venerable,” Lewis continues, “is not simply to record a psychological fact about our own parental or filial emotions at the moment, but to recognize a quality which demands a certain response from us whether we make it or not.”

What would Lewis make of the moral wreckage that today’s imploding culture has left in its wake?  I think he would conclude that it is not just that chaos ensues when fixed and universal standards are disregarded, which is the moral point; but that in every instance the first casualty has been the very nature inscribed in our humanity from the beginning, which is the metaphysical point.  That in raising-up generations which no longer revile what is evil, nor revere what is good, the constitution of being itself is under assault.  In short, we have loosed a terrible solipsism upon ourselves, the fallout from which will mean that we are no longer recognizable even to ourselves.   A more precise definition of Hell, incidentally, you will not find.

And so we have got to try and reach those who no longer share, and have thus grown insensible to, a whole scaffolding of certitudes and intuitions on whose maintenance civilized life depends.  If we are not to become those “trousered apes” of which Lewis writes, immersed in a kind of post-human barbarism for which the only standard of adjudication is appetite, then we have simply got to re-introduce our world to those ancient and timeless distinctions that separate us from the simians (yes, even very clever ones).  Killing one’s children, or neighbor; seducing his wife, or stealing his car; co-habiting with members of one’s own family or sex—these are things about which we need to be on the same page in expressing our total moral disapproval.  Nothing less than a shared sense of outrage, of shame and disgust, needs to resurface across the fruited plain if we are to escape the Dark Night we are entering.

One of the examples Lewis cites in his compendium of maxims, reminding us of the universality of the human heart, is the Hindu proverb that says one must never strike a woman, “not even with a flower.”  Surely that should give us pause, living in a society where violence against women is sanctioned in all sorts of ways.  A huge sex industry has grown up, for instance, where an ethic of exploitation expressly victimizes the woman, leaving her an objectified mess.  What else is pornography but a species of reductionism in which the mystery of the Other becomes nothing more complicated than a series of interchangeable parts totally disconnected from the person.  When people become no better than commodities, when the entire architecture of their own natures is seen as malleable (“From now on,” warns Pope Benedict, “there is only the abstract human being, who chooses for himself what his nature is to be”), should it surprise us that the use and disposal of human beings becomes a mere function of convenience?  Small wonder then if the figures on spousal abuse, rape, and divorce go up and up.

And then, finally, there is this example from that great Anglo-Saxon epic, Beowulf, (also cited in The Abolition of Man), in which “death,” we are told, “is better for every man than life with shame.”  How utterly and politically incorrect that is!  How many of us there are for whom anything is preferable to death, including shame.  There are fewer and fewer things we would not scruple to do in order to escape that eventuality.

“Hypocrisy,” Oscar Wilde tells us, “is the homage vice pays to virtue.”  The way things are going these days, why even the hypocrite may become an endangered species.  In a time of an accelerating descent into barbarism, of the sheer vertiginous fall of virtue into vice, alas, there may not be much point left in paying homage to anything.

Editor’s note: The image above depicts the gates of Auschwitz. The sign reads “Work Makes One Free.”  

Regis Martin


Regis Martin is Professor of Theology and Faculty Associate with the Veritas Center for Ethics in Public Life at the Franciscan University of Steubenville. He earned a licentiate and a doctorate in sacred theology from the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas in Rome. Martin is the author of a number of books, including Still Point: Loss, Longing, and Our Search for God (2012) and The Beggar's Banquet (Emmaus Road). His most recent book, also published by Emmaus Road, is called Witness to Wonder: The World of Catholic Sacrament. He resides in Steubenville, Ohio, with his wife and ten children.

  • givelifeachance2

    Learning that Stalin’s persecution of the kulaks involved starving them to the point of cannibalism (even within families) was what awakened me to the BIG big lie. This is the lie that Nazis were worse than the Soviets. I’d rather be a skull in the Auschwitz pile, than part of the picked-over leavings of my starving family in the Ukraine. Communism, whether national socialism or international socialism, is pure evil and so is cannibalism.

    And the trajectory for massive starvation is set – euthanasia happens in our nursing homes in the form of starvation, but is no less the agonizing to its victims.

    Eisenhower made his troops walk through Auschwitz to witness the horror, but he forced unwilling Russian soldiers back to the Soviet Union at bayonet point – because he did not acknowledge the horror of what had happened in the Ukraine, under “Uncle Joe”. May we be more clearsighted than he.

    • cestusdei

      To be fair to Ike he had to send them back so that the Soviets would return US POW’s who they had liberated.

      • givelifeachance2

        What kind of fairness is there in forcing back (over a million) soldiers who did not want to go back? Many committed suicide when they realized they were being tricked into returning; some soldiers were actually drugged. The Soviets (our supposed “allies”) held back American POWs anyway, to die in the gulag. Google “Operation Keelhaul Forced Repatriation” for more specifics on this brutal program. Future of Freedom Foundation has material on this.

  • poetcomic1

    Aurel Kolnai, the great Catholic philosopher and psychologist, discovered the biological basis of disgust in his famed ON DISGUST. ‘Physical revulsion’ and the physical triggers are necessary to the experience of disgust /revulsion. One cannot experience authentic disgust in the abstract, only an anger at ‘violated norms’. Media makes mankind ‘used’ to horrors and grotesqueries of every sort. Disgust becomes dulled and at the same time (most terrifying to me) we are flooded with cheap sentiments best exemplified by the teddy bears and heaps of flowers rotting still wrapped in plastic that are heaped at every new massacre site.

  • hombre111

    Took a while to finally get down to your point: a condemnation of same sex marriage. Right reason, indeed. In my lifetime, the same argument was made against inter-racial marriage. I do buy your argument about the triumph of subjectivity over objectivity, but how to apply it, and where, is a tough question. The left seems willing to justify anything that has to do with sex and drugs, while the right seems to justify anything that means more money. But all this gets skewed when a right wing billionaire with his porn/gambling houses supports Republican candidates. A truly fallen man from any perspective. And a Republican.

    • Augustus

      Country Club Republicans are social liberals. They are not the “right wing.” A preoccupation with money to the exclusion of spiritual/moral values is materialist and therefore liberal. On the other hand, there is nothing wrong with being successful in life. One’s success does not mean another one’s failure, unless the state intervenes in your favor by penalizing your competition with punitive regulations. Thus crony capitalism at work. Big business in bed with big government. We can thank the Left for this. Our president is a master at “spreading the wealth around” to his friends in the Green industry and on Wall Street. There are Republicans who have been seduced by the corruption of Leviathan but they are not the “right wing.” Party labels do not correspond neatly to political ideologies of Left and Right. The establishment power is Left. The Right is in the wilderness.

      • hombre111

        Marvelous logic here. Sounds like Alice in Wonderland.

        • Augustus

          It sounds like Alice in Wonderland to you because you are ignorant of political philosophy and rely instead on the lies, stereotypes, and prejudices of the political Left.

    • anon

      No comparison between inter-racial marriage and homosexual faux unions.

      • hombre111

        You have to be as old as me to remember, but back in the day, both were considered equally “unnatural.”

        • anon

          Not by all

          • And not all consider homosexual union unnatural now, so what’s the difference exactly between that and inter-racial marriage?

    • Why do you assume inter-racial marriage is acceptable? Because modern society accepts it? Modern society also accepts abortion, homosexuality, fornication, divorce, and God only knows what else on down the line.

      • hombre111

        Ahh. Annette Rf. Does that stand for Annette the female racist?

        • Its not “racist” to have preferences.

  • Michael Paterson-Seymour

    Etienne Gilson pointed out that “the way of recognizing the false sciences which idealism generates is by the fact that they feel it necessary to “ground” their objects. That is because they are not sure their objects exist. For the realist, whose thought is concerned with being, the Good, the True and the Beautiful are in the fullest sense real, since they are simply being itself as desired, known and admired. But as soon as thought substitutes itself for knowledge, these transcendentals begin to float in the air without knowing where to perch themselves. This is why idealism spends its time “grounding” morality, knowledge and art, as though the way men should act were not written in the nature of man, the manner of knowing in the very structure of our intellect, and the arts in the practical activity of the artist himself. The realist never has to ground anything, but he has to discover the foundations of his operations, and it is always in the nature of things that he finds them: operatio sequitur esse.

  • On race: There is no such thing as race. The categories are arbitrary. Before the 18th century, the word basically meant “ethnicity,” a category that was part physical description (Italians have dark skin) and part cultural description. The Enlightenment, that curtain of darkness descending upon the mind of man, gave to race its “scientific” sanction. Anyhow, nobody in history ever doubted that a man of one “race” COULD marry a woman of another “race,” and for most of human history, in most places, nobody particularly cared about skin color and the other things that fascinated the scientific racists. That’s why we don’t know what Augustine looked like, that is, whether he was of Berber stock, or Coptic, or European, or Semitic, or whatever. Nobody in the Roman Empire cared.
    So there are examples of disgust wrongly directed. But the threat in human history is seldom too much disgust. The threat is that there won’t be enough. It’s seldom enough that we have a misdirected “moral” reaction against something good or innocent, by comparison anyhow with how often we have no reaction at all to something bad or wicked.
    The racists were wrong to try to keep certain men from marrying certain women, but even the racists knew that a marriage was a marriage. Mrs. Campanella was married to Mr. Campanella, and that was that. But Mr. Campanella could not have “married” Mr. Robinson, because the nature of the human body forbids it.

  • It sure is hard to make Hitler look less evil by comparison, but I doubt that even Hitler would have had his own German soldiers, coming back from POW camps, murdered. And yet the American left has still not apologized for playing kissy-kissy with Papa Joe. WEB DuBois, I’ve just found out, was a big Stalin fan …

  • supineny

    ” Or, to raise yet another specter, what about incest? Surely that
    immemorial taboo needs to topple, too. After all, if there is real
    consent in place, what’s the problem? (Or necrophilia, for heaven sake,
    where the matter of consent would seem no longer to matter at all! See
    what a brave new world we have come to?)”

    the slippery slope argument is fairly ridiculous. The difference between a cure and a poison is, sometimes, the dose. Were it not, why not questons like these:

    if it’s constitutional to bear arms, why not allow ordinary citizens to have nuclear warheads? If it’s okay to feed your children, why not force feed them till they burst? If it’s okay to slaughter creatures for food, then why not slaughter people for food — they’re edible creatures, too, aren’t they? If it’s okay to serve intoxicating drugs — like tea, coffee and alcohol — why not serve heroin with the dessert course? If it’s okay to get up and start walking straight ahead, what happens if they walk into a brick wall and smash their face?