The Argument from Disgust

Many decades ago, when I was a young philosophy professor at a Catholic women’s college (which has long since gone out of existence), I would sometimes ask, in order to stimulate a class discussion, “What’s wrong with homosexuality?”  In asking the question, I had in mind – and the students knew I had in mind – homosexual conduct, not simply a homosexual orientation.  In those long-ago days, it was not necessary to make that somewhat pedantic distinction.

The prompt answer from the students was always the same: “It’s disgusting.”  That pretty much ended the class discussion.  If I tried to prolong the discussion by asking, “But why is it disgusting,” the answer would be, “It just is,” or “Isn’t it obvious?”

I’m no longer teaching.  I retired two years ago after a very long career.  But if I were to go into a college classroom today and ask that question I’d be told, “Don’t be silly. There is nothing wrong with homosexuality.”

Suppose I attempted to prolong the discussion by saying, “There are some people, you know, who think that gay or lesbian sex is disgusting.”

“Well,” I’d be told, “those people are homophobes, haters.”

At this point I’d probably drop the subject, give up my attempt to provoke a discussion.  For if I were to go any further I’d run the risk of deeply offending some student who, filled with a spirit of righteous indignation, would go to the president of the college saying, “I have a homophobic philosophy teacher who is hinting, and more than hinting, that it’s okay to hate gays and lesbians.  If you’re not to share his guilt you must fire him.”

And then the college, in obedience to federal rules, would have to investigate me for the next six months or so.  And even if the college, after the investigation, didn’t fire me, it might well demand of me that I issue a statement making it clear that I have no objection to homosexuals or homosexuality.

We’ve come a long way from the days when my Catholic college girls were unanimous in their feeling that homosexuality is “disgusting.”


There was a time when “the argument from disgust” was generally felt to be a good argument against certain practices.  For example, in the late Victorian era.  I often find myself reading books that were written at the tail end of the 19th century or very early in the 20th century, books mostly written by English writers.  Those old writers had no hesitation in expressing their disgust at homosexual conduct, which they routinely called the “unnatural vice,” or if the writer happened to be something of a classical scholar, the “Greek vice.”

These classical scholars loved Plato, and it obviously pained them to find Plato approving of, or at least tolerating, pederastic feelings and relationships.  But they were not simply Platonists.  They were Christians too, and so they found disgusting what their good friend Plato found more or less tolerable.

A very striking example of this Victorian attitude of disgust is found in Lord Acton, the English Catholic who was professor of modern history at the University of Cambridge.  Discreetly alluding to the homosexual relationships of King James I of England, Acton speaks of “the odious filthiness of his private life.”

But it wasn’t homosexuality alone that provoked disgust in the Victorians.  Drunkenness also disgusted them.  As did prostitution.  The drunkard wasn’t, as we more advanced moderns tend to see him, an unfortunate man (or woman) prey to a disease over which he has little control.  No, to the Victorians he was a disgusting human being, a disgrace to the human race.  Likewise the prostitute.  She was in Victorian eyes a disgusting instance of fallen humanity.  And she was this not just in the eyes of virgins and chaste matrons, but also in the eyes of those unchaste married and unmarried men who used her and paid her.

Victorians were also disgusted by abortion and by doctors who performed abortions.

In fairness to the Victorians, it should be noted that, not only did they feel disgust at drunkards and prostitutes, but they also tried to redeem them.  It was the Victorians who pushed the temperance movement, and not just for the benefit of the wives and children of drunkards, but also for the benefit of the drunkard himself.  And it was Victorians who, like Prime Minister Gladstone, tried to rescue prostitutes and make semi-honest women of them.

We moderns have certainly left the Victorian mentality far behind us.  So far from being disgusted at homosexuality, we have decided (or at least the U.S. Supreme Court, speaking on our behalf, has decided) that the Constitution contains, at least by implication, a right to homosexual intercourse and a right to same-sex marriage.  We applaud gay marriage.  We think it is a good and beautiful thing.  And if some Americans (e.g., old-fashioned Catholics and Evangelicals) continue to think that homosexual conduct is disgusting, well, we think they are disgusting – and worse than disgusting.

And so far from being disgusted by abortion, we honor it.  We (or at least SCOTUS) have long ago elevated it to the level of a fundamental human right.  And one of our two great political parties has made this right its single most important value.  It is to the Democratic Party today what anti-slavery was to the Republican Party in Lincoln’s day.

As for prostitution, the more “advanced” thinkers among us are advocating its legalization.  After all, it’s her body, not anybody else’s.  Why can’t she rent it out for money?  That’s in keeping with the spirit of our free enterprise system of economics, isn’t it?

In closing let me say something that would probably get me fired if I were still teaching.  I find homosexuality disgusting.  I find drunkenness disgusting.  I find prostitution disgusting.  I find drug addiction disgusting.  I find abortion disgusting.

As for people who don’t find these things disgusting – I find them disgusting.


*Image: The Awakening of Conscience by William Holman Hunt, 1853 [Tate, London]. Hunt depicted a man and his “mistress” in the moment of her “sudden spiritual revelation. Rising from her lover’s lap, she gazes into the sunlit garden beyond, which is reflected in the mirror behind her. The mirror image represents the woman’s lost innocence, but redemption, indicated by the ray of light in the foreground, is still possible.”

David Carlin is a retired professor of sociology and philosophy at the Community College of Rhode Island, and the author of The Decline and Fall of the Catholic Church in America and, most recently, Three Sexual Revolutions: Catholic, Protestant, Atheist.