The Yuck Factor

October 9, 2015 § Leave a comment

“Why is incest wrong?”

This was the question that my logic professor asked the class once. (It wasn’t the most pleasant way to start out the class.) He emphasized that he wasn’t advocating for incest, he merely wanted to know the reasons for why it was considered to be wrong. The class then proceeded to produce a list of reasons which included possible birth defects and health problems for the child born, mental trauma for the family involved, and ostracism from society. He then presented us with a scenario: A brother and sister, both single, go into the mountains for a relaxing weekend. While there, they have sex once. No one will ever find out about it, the brother and sister do not feel guilty or ashamed about the action, and the sister is infertile. Afterwards, they continue to relax before going back home to their lives. Is incest wrong in this case? (What do you think?)

Students claimed that incest was still wrong but had a difficult time coming up with reasons as to why. Some of the statements that kept coming up, especially when the students could not come up with reasons, were “It just seems gross,” “It feels weird,” “That’s just disgusting.”

This scenario and discussion were incredibly memorable (as well as painfully awkward) because it specifically got me to think about “The Yuck Factor”: when we use our intuitive, negative feelings about something as explanations for why that thing is considered to be harmful or evil. The most important takeaway? The yuck factor alone cannot be used as a logical reason to support or explain a certain stance or argument. My reasons for not supporting a presidential candidate cannot include “He just seems weird” or “I have a bad feeling about him.” These are not logical, rational reasons and appeal to one’s emotion instead of presenting concrete evidence. The Yuck Factor, or formally known as “the wisdom of repugnance”, is viewed as a fallacious appeal to emotion.

Yet even though I know all of this, it was extremely difficult to stop myself from using the yuck factor as a way of explaining why I was averse to some elements in the stories that we have been reading, namely Octavia Butler’s Dawn. At first, I felt that I had a legitimate reason as to why I was opposed to Lilith and Nikanj’s intimate relationship. Lilith was still confused about the ways of the Oankali  and she never seemed to explicitly give her consent to Nikanj. In fact, most of the time Lilith never got a say in what happened to her body. Yet as time went on, Lilith became more comfortable with the Oankali, able to fit into their society and carry out her assigned function. We see that she comes to care for Nikanj, visibly panicked and frightened when he is injured at the end of the book. She even begins to enjoy the pleasure that Nikanj is able to provide for her with his…tentacles? feelers? However, as the book progressed I found myself becoming more and more opposed to Lilith and Nikanj’s relationship as well as this idea of the post-human, in this case, a being created from a mixture of human and Oankali DNA.

Nikanj is a sentient being, capable of thought and communication. He has a superior genetic makeup and mental capacity. It would be beneficial not only for Lilith to have a positive, intimate relationship with Nikanj, but also for Lilith to produce a child that takes away characteristics from humans and the Oankali. (They can move walls around! Who doesn’t want that?) I find myself continuously opposed to both prospects and yet, the only reason that I can come up with for thinking this way is that “It just feels wrong.” It feels wrong for Nikanj to give Lilith pleasure with his wiggly jellyfish arms and for Lilith to have a child that has DNA from the creature with the wiggly jellyfish arms. Yet, I know that this is not sufficient enough reason to be able to say it is wrong.

Does anyone else think this way?

-Demosthenes

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