On Angers, Disgusts and Nauseas

Photo by Aquiles Carattino | CC BY 2.0

On Tuesday April 10, the State Policy Group for Science and Technology in Argentina published a document titled “El asco y la nausea. Reflexiones” (Disgust and Nausea: Reflections). In Argentina we’re used to the constant lies of our rulers. But some “disgust” us and also move us to anger, sentiments or passions which have always been controversial in moral psychology, or at least since Stoic philosophers like Seneca took on Aristotle, antiquity’s great authority in the field.

Rage and irascibility, Aristotle says, are natural passions or emotions which partially “listen to argument”, although they can frequently spiral into revenge. He then brilliantly observes—as if only in passing—“Again, those who are more insidious are more unjust”, adding that passion and anger are not underhand but work openly. The insidious ones are abundant in Argentine politics today. They’re not enraged. No, they just lie and smile.

The members of the State Policy Group are disgusted and nauseous because the—allegedly inefficient—state gratuitously ceded the successful technological developments achieved by workers of the Federal Administration of Public Revenues (AFIP) to purportedly more efficient private consultants which hadn’t invested a single cent in software development. Naturally, the government didn’t even bother to go through the charade of selling it for a paltry sum as happened in the 1990s with the “sale” of public companies. Hence, the signatories to the document complain that this “legal” robbery is disgusting and they’re suffering from severe nausea.

Many more of us in Argentina are nauseated by the flabbergasting public spectacles put on by our authorities who trample all over the mandate of trusteeship entailed by their election, as is appropriate for republican leaders. This responsibility is a very long way from the fiduciary scam cooked up by the Argentine Minister for Finance in order to hide ownership, which is so obviously incompatible with his public position, of his offshore accounts. They lie, they deny the facts and figures, and end up turning political debate into an appalling theater of the absurd. Over and over again, they perform their nightmarish repetition of the same discursive ploys concocted by their experts in legitimation (among them Macri’s “strategic adviser”, Durán Barba) to ensure that any discussion with anyone who might call them to account is out of the question. They insist, for example, that offshore accounts are the same as a bank safe deposit box, and pronounce that, in Argentine law, being a civil servant and having an offshore account is perfectly above board and normal. Craftily contradicting all statistics including the ones they’ve always claimed to trust, they chorus that poverty and inflation are improving. They flaunt the blatant inconsistency between what they promised on the hustings and the facts. Faced with his broken promise of “zero poverty”, for example, President Macri imperturbably professed that, “When we speak of zero poverty, we’re not talking about achieving it overnight”, and that, “It doesn’t matter that it’s not happening now. What matters is the effort that’s being made to ensure that the number of poor people is being reduced”. This came after it was demonstrated that, in their first phase, his economic policies had produced a million and a half more poor citizens and another six hundred thousand newly classified as destitute. The worst is over, they intone year after year despite the evidently dire results. What could be worse than rising numbers of the poverty-stricken and destitute? This is the epitome of preposterousness.

It’s true that the use of the idea of moral disgust in public life has led to some interesting criticism. In a 2006 interview published by Sin Permisoon the occasion of the publication of her book Hiding from Humanity: Disgust, Shame and the Law, Martha Nussbaum said that even “moralized disgust” as used in public life is problematic because it can conceal a more primitive kind of disgust, for example revulsion towards homosexuals and drug addicts, and because it’s an unproductive, antisocial stance. She described it as a visceral, irrational reaction that doesn’t present reasons that can be used as arguments. Yet it’s evident that the “disgusted” members of the State Policy Group for Science and Technology have very good reasons and they do give them as arguments.

Anger can be constructive, Nussbaum argues, because it brings to light the existence of harm which can be remedied. Disgust, by contrast, expresses a desire to break with, to get away from the source of pollution or putrefaction. She once confessed that she was so disgusted by some American politicians that she was fantasizing about moving to Finland, even while acknowledging that this wasn’t a constructive way of confronting problems in the United States. The members of the State Policy Group for Science and Technology are disgusted but they’re not daydreaming about Finland—or at least not publicly—and they keep slogging away to demonstrate the harm being done by the government’s policies. Far from wanting to flee and avoid problems, they’ve been battling for years to be heard and heeded.

However, arguing about the rights and wrongs of anger and disgust in public discourse without paying attention to facts, statistics and specific policies is, like many discussions in political philosophy, quite frustrating. The struggle with these kinds of irrational passion shouldn’t be limited to the fine points of individual moral psychology. It requires thinking about republican institutional designs which might preclude these lamentable scenes in the arena of public policy: the anger and disgust of many, and the arrogance and lies of a few others. It’s a matter of urgency that we should discover the truth about the social structure of our republic, its degrees of inequality, poverty and exclusion, and also the levels of concentration of wealth and means of production in the hands of the minority which is are now governing us.

It wouldn’t be superfluous to remind practitioners of art of governing on the basis of lies of some advice quoted by Jonathan Swift from John Arbuthnot’s “very curious discourse” The Art of Political Lying, which warns that, “promissory or prognosticating lies should not be upon short days, for fear the authors should have the shame and confusion to see themselves speedily contradicted”. This, of course, would be good advice if our leaders were actually capable of feeling shame, if they weren’t “shameless” and immune to feeling mortified or even ridiculous when they’re publicly proven to be lying and taken to task for it.

María Julia Bertomeu is Professor of Ethics at the Universidad Nacional de La Plata, Argentina, researcher of the National Research Council (CONICET), and member of the editorial board of the international political review Sin Permiso.

Translated from the Spanish by Julie Wark.