Mob Morality: The Dangers of Repugnance as Moral Authority

by Tauriq Moosa

Clip_image004 What is it about topics like incest, bestiality, necrophilia and cannibalism that urges us to pick up pitchforks and torches? A more important question, however, is whether these topics automatically or necessarily should elicit outrage enough for us to target those who perform these acts. I think not.

Considering the purely descriptive side, there has been some interesting but controversial research into our moral psychology and intuitions.

Jonathan Haidt famously provided the following example in a study.

Julie and Mark are brother and sister. They are travelling together in France on summer vacation from college. One night they are staying alone in a cabin near the beach. They decide that it would be interesting and fun if they tried making love. At the very least, it would be a new experience for each of them. Julie was already taking birth control pills, but Mark uses a condom too, just to be safe. They both enjoy making love, but they decide never to do it again. They keep that night as a special secret, which makes them feel even closer to each other. What do you think about that? Was it ok for them to make love?

Haidt, in an interview, explained the responses of subjects reaching ‘moral dumbfounding’:

People almost always start out by saying it’s wrong. Then they start to give reasons. The most common reasons involve genetic abnormalities or that it will somehow damage their relationship. But we say in the story that they use two forms of birth control, and we say in the story that they keep that night as a special secret and that it makes them even closer. So people seem to want to disregard certain facts about the story. When the experimenter points out these facts and says “Oh, well, sure, if they were going to have kids, that would cause problems, but they are using birth control, so would you say that it’s OK?” And people never say “Ooooh, right, I forgot about the birth control. So then it is OK.” Instead, they say, “Oh, yeah. Huh. Well, OK, let me think.”

So what’s really clear, you can see it in the videotapes of the experiment, is: people give a reason. When that reason is stripped from them, they give another reason. When the new reason is stripped from them, they reach for another reason. And it’s only when they reach deep into their pocket for another reason, and come up empty-handed, that they enter the state we call “moral dumbfounding.” Because they fully expect to find reasons. They’re surprised when they don’t find reasons. And so in some of the videotapes you can see, they start laughing. But it’s not an “it’s so funny” laugh. It’s more of a nervous-embarrassment puzzled laugh. So it’s a cognitive state where you “know” that something is morally wrong, but you can’t find reasons to justify your belief. Instead of changing your mind about what’s wrong, you just say: “I don’t know, I can’t explain it. I just know it’s wrong.” So the fact that this state exists indicates that people hold beliefs separate from, or with no need of support from, the justifications that they give. Or another way of saying it is that the knowing that something is wrong and the explaining why are completely separate processes.

Moralisation is immediately engaged when judging Julie and Mark as doing something ‘wrong’. Being consequentialist, we are presented with benign consequences, if not beneficial ones. As deontologists, perhaps we can make the argument that by some rule or law closely biologically-related people should not engage in intercourse. This only begs this question ‘Why?’

A major irritation in moral discussions is the reply emitted when someone has reached argument fatigue: “It’s just wrong!” they claim. As Haidt indicated, removing usual factors that make, for example, incest wrong leaves a trace of immorality unable to be coloured in with rational argument. This means either Julie and Mark are not wrong or it is wrong but for reasons unavailable for now. (This latter could be claimed all the time, however. We could claim homosexuality is wrong, but we just can’t give good reasons as of today)

A very unhelpful way of discussing moral problems is to infer that certain things are inherently right or wrong. To be nuanced, we might say certain things are wrong by definition. For example, ‘murder’ is ‘a wrongful killing’ or ‘rape’ is ‘wrongful and violent sexual infringement on another person’. Terms like these however have the advantage of having a kind of a priori moral gloss on them, already. To have a more meaningful discussion, we must work with terms that do not shine with preconceived notions in order to gain clarity on the matter at hand.

Thus, we say the ethics of killing when talking about infanticide and euthanasia, not “murder” since this is already a conclusion. Killing is ‘the deliberate taking of another life’, for example, and we can then work out whether this is justified or not. If it is unjustified, it is murder; if it is not, it might be something like euthanasia. You might think that euthanasia is by definition murder (i.e. wrongful killing), but you would still need to argue for it.

I operate on consequences, since, for nearly all the dilemmas I’ve encountered and considering justifications from history, I am sceptical and suspicious of things being taboo or inherently wrong. Murder and rape, for example, are such strong cases of immorality that we take it for granted why we accept these as wrong. As I will show, even commonly accepted prohibitions, like murder, which most will agree upon, must be unpacked if our moral engagement is to be successful.

It should be obvious, therefore, that I find nothing morally wrong with Julia and Mark’s action. After all, it was consensual and they acted – as far was know – autonomously. This has implications, which must therefore be accepted: that incest is not therefore wrong or right by definition. It would be unhelpful if we defined incest as ‘the wrongful sexual interaction between close and related family-members’, since the argument still needs to be made as to why it’s wrong in the first place. Just defining something as wrong and working from that assumption is to take a Straw Man and put him in a circular argument.

If this is the case, we must ask the following: If a sexual interaction between two consenting adults occurs, with no harmful ramifications to others, should we prevent them from doing it?

I have not been convinced by the need for ‘sexual ethics’, since all arguments that try to make sex or sexual engagement problematic seem to be nothing but rationalised Puritanism. The question I ask above is not a simple yes or no, despite any libertarian or consequential perspectives, since we need information on specific cases. It seems on the surface at level at least to require the answer: no.


To get a more broad perspective, we must ask what kinds of interactions deserve condemnation. Sexual engagements usually serve to raise external problems, rather than the act of sex itself. The fact that sex is used in a rape is less important than the fact that someone is violated, hurt, or done an injustice. In this attack, the weapon used was sex. The only major distinction between a bat and a penis, in cases of assault and rape respectfully, is that the latter can lead to pregnancy. That is perhaps the only reason to consider it as something distinctive alongside other forms of assault.

But let us assess what kinds of interactions between two people deserve condemnation. Ignoring obvious cases, like assault and rape, let us rather look at cases where two people have consented to widely-considered immoral acts.


(A) A husband and wife, with no friends or progeny, live alone in a hut in the woods. The husband is a trained medical professional. His wife is slowly and painfully dying of a disease. Unable to give her palliative care any longer, she asks him to kill her. He does so in the least brutal way he can, by slowly injecting the necessary medication into her blood-stream. She dies.

I see nothing morally problematic in this example. Let us add necrophilia to this example.

(B) Before the wife dies, she tells her husband that he should feel free to ‘love’ her even after she dies. He knows this will add to his happiness, given his isolation and his continued love for his wife. She will be dead anyway, so she does not lose out on being harmed. After she dies, he proceeds to occasionally have sex with her body. For example, he could keep her body in a persistent-vegetative state.

Aside from diseases — which is a chance during even consensual sex between living, consensual adults anyway — I see nothing wrong with this either. Who is being harmed? The wife is dead, after all. The husband is gaining utility or is having his suffering reduced, by not feeling lonely with the corpse. Some might say in the long run he is psychologically scarring himself, but that can be tested empirically to a degree and is not entirely obvious from just the case sketched above. Nor is psychological scarring a good enough reason to prevent someone from performing an action: We, firstly, can never know what will bring about psychological scarring (a normal car-drive around the mountain could turn into an severe accident, leading to psychological scarring) and, secondly, even if we knew certain things often lead to psychological scarring we do not prevent people from engaging in it (plummeting from great heights, talking to the criminally-insane, etc.)

(C) Let us say that the wife’s condition has a final stage where the wife will no longer feel or be unconscious but most her body still functions. That is, her body still functions but all personhood has left. Being aware that this would happen, the wife tells her husband to continue to please himself with her body. She cannot feel pain or pleasure, no matter what happens to her, but most of her body still functions. Therefore, he gets the benefit of a live body to please himself with but she feels nothing.

Is this morally problematic? I still think not, since this is no different to her body being dead as in example (B).

No doubt many people will think that because I find nothing morally problematic in these cases, I’m endorsing necrophilia. This, however, is a black-and-white fallacy; the “either you’re with us or against us” mindset. I can find nothing problematic with an action but not endorse it, just as we can find nothing problematic with people smoking in the privacy of their own homes (and away from others), but not endorse smoking.


Consider the incest cases again: It is a strange thing. Where do we draw the line? It seems the less closely genetically-related we get, the more we accept sexual interactions. That is, many people are horrified by brother-sister incest or father-daughter* incest, but are less troubled by third-cousins, twice-removed relationships.

But even this is not true! We genetically leap away, since this appears to combat incest, but if we don’t stop leaping, we land up ‘heavily petting’ a completely different species. Then we are barred because of bestiality.

What is so repugnant about engaging sexually with another animal? Many find it “unnatural” or “just wrong”, much like incest. Yet such reasons are unsound when unpacked. We know that natural does not mean “good”, since cancers and earthquakes would have to become, by definition, good things.

According to Peter Singer in a now famous essay, “Heavy Petting”, the major hurdle to overcome is not that they are animals but the anthropocentric idea that we are not. The main reason to oppose certain acts of bestiality, and not bestiality as a whole, is the same reasons to oppose sex with a young child or a cognitively-impaired individual: We are uncertain about the damage, whether they themselves want it, and so on. The reasons apply across the species-range, not because the goat or dog is just another species. I cannot think of reasons to oppose cases of bestiality where, as far as someone judges, the non-human does enjoy it (as Singer highlights, dogs appear to willingly engage in sexual interactions by grinding against people’s legs, for example).


I also have yet to find good reasons for opposing cannibalism wholesale. Just as we can oppose unjustified killing (in most cases), yet endorse killing in other cases (euthanasia), so we can look at cannibalism in a similar way. Many justify cannibalism in extreme cases but think “non-extreme” cases, like the famous German cannibal Arwin Meiwes, are immoral.

Why do we react with a sympathetic sigh of “they had to eat to survive”, by killing and eating their fellows, in cases where people find themselves starving – say after plane crashes or ship sinking. Yet when someone consents to being eaten, we think it wrong? In the first group of cases, there are numerous people that do not consent to being eaten but in the second someone does: yet it is the second that some people are troubled with.

To take the case I know more about, recounted by WikiPedia here, it appears that cannibal Arwin Meiwes, was being “greedy” since he did not need to eat Brandes to survive. He ate Brandes, who previously consented, because Meiwes (and I would argue Brandes) had an urge that needed to be sated. Some might say this urge was sick, but so what? Smoking is a disgusting habit, as are narcotics. But should we arrest people for smoking or doing drugs, in the privacy of their homes? I don’t think so. John Stuart Mill’s idea that we should not intervene in someone’s life even if it is for her own good holds true in these cases.


It seems in many instances, we let the repugnance of eating other people or having sex with animals or siblings overshadow what should be of general moral concern: autonomy, harm, rights, and so on. For example, many people find homosexual acts abhorrent, against nature or god, and so on. Yet, there is no indication at all that homosexuality should be of moral concern. So why do even those who would defend gay-rights feel this way about cannibalism or incest? There is nothing special about cannibalism, especially in cases where the “victim” consents (a consenting victim should sound strange in your ears). Sure, we might be repulsed by murderers who eat the corpses of their victims, or sodomise the bodies. But it is the wrongful killing of innocent people that is more worrying and which we have safeguards against: from a legal and moral perspective.

The repugnance factor clouds our judgement. Murder is wrong because, in almost all cases, it creates greater suffering for the victim; or perhaps it violates someone by treating them as a means to an end; or you lower their dignity. We can give excellent reasons why killing someone, in most instances, against his will, brutally and without sufficiently good reasons, is morally wrong. Forgetting this leads to us labelling anything to do with killing as a murder. So, people say murder when they mean killing, as in abortion or euthanasia. Of course a human being is killed in these circumstances but for good reasons. If there are goods reasons, it immediately dispels the claim that it is murder.

One would have to justify these as good reasons. For example, does it actually bring about more good, treat someone as a person, raise their dignity, etc.? Or else we are left 'morally dumbfounded'.

The overarching thread that links bestiality and necrophilia and cannibalism – and all manner of repugnant cases – is that we must be consistent in our evaluation. And we need to apply our critical view even to cases we assume are a given: like murder. Being consistent shows that we do in fact have good reasons for applying the term murder to cases like Ted Bundy, but can’t apply that same term to doctors in Belgium. Unpacking our reasoning can help clarify views we find repugnant and not allow the repugnance to cloud our judgement and condemn unnecessarily those who do not deserve it.

*Ignoring immoral cases of paedophilia. Imagine the daughter is 23 or, for example, Lot’s daughters sleeping with their father in Genesis 19.