I heard a great podcast interview with Martha Nussbaum done through the Philosophy Department at the University of Chicago. The interview is based on her new book From Disgust to Humanity: Sexual Orientation and Constitutional Law .

What strikes me as most interesting in her work is the distinction she draws between disgust and indignation, the former being based on a visceral impulse to distance oneself from an object and the latter based on the violation of abstract principles like human dignity. Nussbaum notes that every culture seems to label an “other” as worthy of disgust.

This distinction is important for understanding contemporary politics. A few weeks back, Jimmy Carter made news for suggesting that much of the “tea party” opposition to President Obama was based on racist beliefs towards him, not on ideology. If true, this would seem to be political action motivated by disgust rather than indignation. Indignation would be if opponents truly viewed him as a socialist and weren’t simply masking their visceral disgust for him with a more socially acceptable ideological argument.

The problem is that it is immensely difficult to tease out the difference. How do we know if opposition is truly rooted in racism? Perhaps a combination of disgust and indignation drives opposition to Obama. How much was opposition to Bush driven by digust? How much by indignation?

It’s an important question because disgust can’t be reasoned with. Logical arguments do not make spoiled milk smell better. True racism can be “un-learned,” but how much of that un-learning takes place through reasoning? I’m not sure.