April 20, 2024

Yelping at the yuck factor

Unintellectual and backward, says Finnish bioethicist

Unfairly, perhaps, but
the most enduring legacy of bioethicist Leon Kass to his colleagues may be a
phrase he used in 1997 to argue against human cloning, “the wisdom of repugnance”.
That’s the Saks Fifth Avenue coinage; its CostCo cousin is “the yuck factor”. Both
have been ridiculed as a backward and unintellectual attempt to slow
technological progress by appealing to irrational feelings of disgust. Public
policy should be based on rationality, not evolved responses to the dangers of
spiders and copraphilia. More than a decade later the former head of Council on
Bioethics under President George W. Bush is still being attacked over the
concept’s validity.  

In the journal Bioethics,
the Finnish scholar Jussi Niemela fires another salvo at Kass and his
supporters. Kass argued that “repugnance is the emotional expression of deep
wisdom, beyond reason’s power fully to articulate it”. Niemela counters that it
is no such thing. Visceral reactions to IVF, cloning, incest, or even
homosexuality are merely “cognitive violations” of “folk biology”. We feel
disgusted because we have instinctive, biologically-evolved responses to
dangerous foods and pathogens, not because an option is morally wrong.
Furthermore, to make sense of the world, human beings use “folk biology” which
projects onto living beings conventional structures of behaviour. Because the
mechanical and asexual aspects of cloning clearly violate these, it is strange
and unfamiliar, ie, a cognitive violation.

What politicians and the public
need to grasp, argues Niemela, is that “the yuck factor” is basically the
rationalization of superstitions. “If something is not easy to grasp by
folk-theoretical reasoning, that doesn’t necessarily mean it is bad or even
dangerous: it’s just something that contradicts natural intuitions. It appears
that things that are not easily understood by utilizing folk-theoretical
thought create a fertile soil for argumentation that strives to cause fear and

Niemela’s is merely
the latest instalment in the battle of emotivism in bioethics – whether moral
judgements are just emotional reactions or acknowledgements of universal laws
of human nature. It is a debate as old as the 18th century
philosopher David Hume. Stay tuned for further controversy.

Michael Cook
Leon Kass
yuck factor