Steve Bainbridge, citing the example of an artist who employs mutilated human cadavers in his craft, writes,

Despite my libertarian leanings, I must concede to thinking that there are some things the law ought to prohibit just because they are so … well, yucky, for lack of a better word.


Yuck. Double yuck. I want it banned and the harm principle can be damned. Do I have a reasoned analysis of how to fit the yuck factor into a coherent political theory? No. And I don’t care. Some things are just too yucky for a civilized society to tolerate. This is what Leon Kass calls the “wisdom of repugnance,” which is hard to square with a generally libertarian world-view but nevertheless makes good sense to me in this case and a number of others.

I agree at a visceral level and, as a practical matter, would say that law made by humans is naturally going to operate in that manner, anyway. But it’s certainly problematic on an intellectual level.

To take a current case in point, I would argue that “the yuck factor” is the primary rationale that currently motivates the ban on gay marriage. We’re no longer at the point where most people view homosexual relations as quite on par with cadaver art but a majority is still exceedingly uncomfortable with the idea. The arguments about “the sanctity of marriage” and such are a smokescreen for “the yuck factor.”

FILED UNDER: Law and the Courts, , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Paul says:

    The arguments about “the sanctity of marriage” and such are a smokescreen for “the yuck factor.”

    From the chair of a single nontheist.

  2. James Joyner says:

    Well, true. But, unless we’re going to outlaw quickie marriages, easy divorce, no-fault divorce, serial marriage, and all the other things that violate the spirit of the institution, the “sanctity” argument is rather hollow.

  3. Kate says:

    Plasticized cadavers are to art what rotten.com is to the National Gallery.

  4. Hayek made a point that culture contains knowledge passed down from previous generations. He would take an evolutionary angle and claim that those cultural traits that were passed on were because they allowed the adherents to survive. I think Hayek would also argue that ignoring the “yuck factor” by attempting to find an intellectually coherent position reaks of “scientism.” To guess at whether Hayek would have backed gay marriage there’s Virginia Postrel’s interesting little article.