The “Yuk Factor”

The “Yuk Factor” is the topic Jackie Ashley has decided to opine about in today’s Guardian. What she means by the “yuk factor” is the revolted reaction one has on being exposed to some entity or practice. The thought of being buried activates her yuk factor, whereas the thought of female circumcision and stem cell research does so in many other people.

The point of the article is to promulgate an argument for tolerance. Since these tastes are often culturally divergent and vary between individuals we should be tolerant and open minded about the distastes of other people and their attitudes to ours. And furthermore, that these emotional responses should be included into our politics in as much as we use them as an indicator to the presence of a thorny issue.

But Ashley has confused an issue of taste with an issue of morality. The fact that she recoils at the thought of being buried is an issue of taste. The fact that most of us recoil at the thought of non-consensual circumcision is not simply because we find the matter distasteful, but because we think that the infliction of a serious harm in the absence of consent is morally wrong.

The issue here is that moral issues often fundamentally intersect with the political but issues of taste do not. This is because the former have a certain logical structure that is not shared with the latter. The following proposition:

  • Women should not be circumcised in the absence of informed and freely given consent.

Is prescriptive and universalizable. It is prescriptive because it enjoins you to refrain from performing an action in certain conditions. It is universalizable because it enjoins everyone refraining from that action, in those circumstances, at any particular place or time. The following propositions:

  • I don’t like the idea of being buried.
  • Jack dislikes gherkins.

Are neither prescriptive or universalizable; nor are they beliefs. Nothing of serious political or moral interest follows from the fact that Jack does not like gherkins. Perhaps the only moral proposition that does is an injunction on forcing Jack to eat them against his will. This, however, only follows when conjoined with the normative idea that people should not be forced to do what they find distasteful in the absence of a mitigating purpose.

Moral issues often have large scale political ramifications in virtue of them having these properties. Non-consensual female circumcision should, according to most of us, be banned because it is a very serious harm and a violation of someone’s person and preferences. Legislating against such practices, a legal reification of the moral injunction, holds irrespective of the putative perpetrator and victim, place and time. As such, it is inherently a political issue.

Ashley’s feeling of revulsion at the thought of being buried or Jack’s distaste for gherkins, however, have no political consequences precisely because they differ fundamentally in structure from moral issues.

It is because of this that the yuk factor has nothing to do with tolerance or political debate. Something can only be a subject of toleration when someone believes that that action or practice is morally wrong; that there is something there to tolerate. It is senseless to speak of Ashley tolerating my burial since her distaste for burial is inherently neither prescriptive, in the requisite sense, nor universalizable.

Failing to properly distinguish between issues of taste and issues of morality is dangerous because it may lead one to treat an issue of taste as one of morality and vice versa. The case of stem cell research, as raised by Ashley, may well be such an example. Although it should be obvious that simply disliking the idea of stem cell research is not a sufficient condition for its prohibition, it may well be the case that many people oppose it on these grounds. But successfully supporting the prohibition would require evidence that such research was in violation of some moral principle, or set of, that we thought carried normative weight and not simply that some people found it distasteful.

Moreover, the presence of a plethora of moral positions is not, simpliciter, evidence for the necessity of tolerance. There are other recourses to divergence of moral opinion, force or imprisonment being a commonly practiced alternative. This is not to claim that those options are the correct recourse to moral conflict, but to remind Ashley that her argument for tolerance from diversity would be unsuccessful even if understood as not making the above conflation.

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