The Repugnance of Stupidity

I’ve complained about Leon Kass and his “Wisdom of Repugnancebefore.

Recently, several bloggers have noted Steven Pinker’s “ice cream” quote from Kass that shows pretty clearly that his repugnance shouldn’t be considered by anybody to be wise or a justification for limiting other people’s options.

Here’s Pinker’s quote:

Worst of all from this point of view are those more uncivilized forms of eating, like licking an ice cream cone–a catlike activity that has been made acceptable in informal America but that still offends those who know eating in public is offensive. … Eating on the street–even when undertaken, say, because one is between appointments and has no other time to eat–displays [a] lack of self-control: It beckons enslavement to the belly. … Lacking utensils for cutting and lifting to mouth, he will often be seen using his teeth for tearing off chewable portions, just like any animal. … This doglike feeding, if one must engage in it, ought to be kept from public view, where, even if we feel no shame, others are compelled to witness our shameful behavior.

Here’s an even longer version:

Worst of all from this point of view are those more uncivilized forms of eating, like licking an ice cream cone –a catlike activity that has been made acceptable in informal America but that still offends those
who know eating in public is offensive.

I fear I may by this remark lose the sympathy of many reader, people who will condescendingly regard as quaint or even priggish the view that eating in the street is for dogs. Modern America’s rising tide of informality has already washed out many long-standing traditions — their reasons long before forgotten — that served well to regulate the boundary between public and private; and in many quarters complete shamelessness is treated as proof of genuine liberation from the allegedly arbitrary constraints of manners. To cite one small example: yawning with uncovered mouth. Not just the uneducated rustic but children of the cultural elite are now regularly seen yawning openly in public (not so much brazenly or forgetfully as indifferently and “naturally”), unaware that it is an embarrassment to human self-command to be caught in the grip of involuntary bodily movements (like sneezing, belching, and hiccupping and even the involuntary bodily display of embarrassment itself, blushing). But eating on the street — even when undertaken, say, because one is between appointments and has no other time to eat — displays in fact precisely such lack of self-control: It beckons enslavement to the belly. Hunger must be sated now; it cannot wait. Though the walking street eater still moves in the direction of his vision, he shows himself as a being led by his appetites. Lacking utensils for cutting and lifting to mouth, he will often be seen using his teeth for tearing off chewable portions, just like any animal. Eating on the run does not even allow the human way of enjoying one’s food, for it is more like simple fueling; it is hard to savor or even to know what one is eating when the main point is to hurriedly fill the belly, now running on empty. This doglike feeding, if one must engage in it, ought to be kept from public view, where, even if WE feel no shame, others are compelled to witness our shameful behavior.”

Kass, Leon: The Hungry Soul at 148-149. (University of Chicago Press, 1994, 1999)

Amazing. It’s sad and scary that this guy, and many others, think that their internalization of eternal truths like these, revealed to them by their parents, teachers, and clergy, should be taken seriously as arguments to guide public policy and oppose promising research.

By the way, I agree with almost all of what Pinker has to say in the article, and I think it’s worth a read if you have the time.

Here’s the embarrassing report on Human Dignity and Bioethics. It’s largely stupid, but I enjoyed Dennett’s article and his commentary on Kraynak.

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