The Yuk Factor

Bioethics can bring up some interesting topics.  We already conceive children outside the body, and manipulating the brain via implants is becoming more commonplace.  Our bodies are very much part of who we are, and tinkering with them in unusual ways often elicits a reaction of aversion.  We sense that something is amiss, that maybe we shouldn’t be doing what we are doing.  Leon Kass termed this phenomenon, the “yuk factor,” a “deep wisdom” that’s hard for us to put our finger on.  The existence of such a “wisdom of repugnance,” he argues, is evidence of a more basic morality that lies beyond the reasoning we use to construct our code of ethics.  In his view, we should heed this intuition; it may indicate something important.

How do we distinguish this kind of insight from just a disinclination toward the new and different?  Many of the medical advances we enjoy today would never have come into being if someone had not challenged the contemporary thinking on the subject.  For instance, organ transplantation on the surface of things seems a bit bizarre.  If one considers the body–not just the soul–to be a part of the person, breaking its wholeness through the removal of an organ seems harmful.  Naturally, many objected to this new medical technology in its initial stages.  However, after the pioneering work of many doctors in the 1960s, the procedure has become common.  What about xenografts from pigs?  Human organ donation involves the sacrifice of another person, but using an organ from an animal is void of such noble motives.   The interspecies nature of the transplantation makes it seem all the more foreign, increasing the “yuk factor.”  Or, are we just resistant to something that is new, something that hasn’t been done before?  Perhaps decades from now we will find xenotransplantation to be the solution to the organ shortage we face now.

What do you think?  Is a completely rationalistic approach to ethics deficient?  Is the “yuk factor” a valid tool in the crafting of our ethics?  Is this intuition in some way analogous to the conscience?   Or the Holy Spirit’s prompting?  Is “deep wisdom” super-rational, irrational, or something else?  Which contemporary technologies are unusual but necessary and which present harms that call for us to prohibit their use?


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