San Francisco Chronicle Reviews Nussbaum's 'From Disgust to Humanity'

'From Disgust to Humanity'
Elizabeth Kennedy
The San Francisco Chronicle
March 21, 2010

From Disgust to Humanity:
Sexual Orientation and Constitutional Law
By Martha C. Nussbaum
(Oxford University Press; 217 pages; $21.95)

Pity the enemies of gay equality who find themselves at intellectual odds with America's most prominent, and most prolific, philosopher of public life, Martha C. Nussbaum. In "From Disgust to Humanity: Sexual Orientation and Constitutional Law," Nussbaum presents a cogent and politically charged case against the unconstitutional legal arguments that have inhibited the privacy, marriage and full civil rights of gays and lesbians in the United States.

Nussbaum, a professor of law and ethics at University of Chicago, begins where her recent book "Hiding From Humanity" left off, with a deep examination of the politics of disgust. This collective failure of imagination, according to Nussbaum, leads people to distance themselves from the gay community with an aversion "akin to that inspired by bodily wastes, slimy insects, and spoiled food."

Where anti-gay activists Leon Kass, former head of President George W. Bush's President's Council on Bioethics, and Paul Cameron, the founder and head of the Family Research Institute, have seized upon this response and employed it unethically to sway both legislative rulings and public opinion against gay rights, Nussbaum takes issue.

The author parses disgust into two distinct types. The first involves a reaction to any offense that might, in fact, harm others. With the allusive precision that makes her a bracing, forceful rhetorician, Nussbaum revisits John Stuart Mill's notion that harm to others ought to be the defining requirement for any legal intervention. To this end, she is quick to indicate that a number of nuisance laws are already on the books that address just these sorts of disgust-based scenarios. All other notions of disgust, however, are characterized by Nussbaum as "projective," or conceptual in nature, such as the distaste a homophobic person might experience at the thought of two men kissing. This is a reaction to an offense of the mind or spirit, neither literal nor physical, but imaginary.

Martha Nussbaum