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Abstract

On February 7, 1989, Earl Kenneth Shriner was convicted of kidnapping, raping, mutilating, and attempting to murder a 7-year-old boy in Tacoma, Washington. Shriner had a 24-year history of sexual violence, and had recently been released from prison after expiration of a prison term for kidnapping and assault of two teenage girls. Shriner has been described as a “slightly retarded man with a bizarre physical appearance” (Petrunick 1994, 57). His physical appearance seemed to suggest an inner strangeness, a psychological otherness that seemed to explain his appalling conduct (Petrunick 1994). It somehow made sense that a man who looked like Shriner would commit sexually violent acts. Mental retardation and physical ugliness have often suggested sexual deviance in literature, as in William Faulkner’s mentally retarded character Benji in the Sound and the Fury, who was castrated after being accused of raping a young girl. Benji is emblematic of our anxieties about sexual innocence and mental disabilities (Tilley 1955).
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Should laws about sex and pornography be based on social conventions about what is disgusting? Should felons be required to display bumper stickers or wear T-shirts that announce their crimes? This powerful and elegantly written book, by one of America's most influential philosophers, presents a critique of the role that shame and disgust play in our individual and social lives and, in particular, in the law. Martha Nussbaum argues that we should be wary of these emotions because they are associated in troubling ways with a desire to hide from our humanity, embodying an unrealistic and sometimes pathological wish to be invulnerable. Nussbaum argues that the thought-content of disgust embodies "magical ideas of contamination, and impossible aspirations to purity that are just not in line with human life as we know it." She argues that disgust should never be the basis for criminalizing an act, or play either the aggravating or the mitigating role in criminal law it currently does. She writes that we should be similarly suspicious of what she calls "primitive shame," a shame "at the very fact of human imperfection," and she is harshly critical of the role that such shame plays in certain punishments.Drawing on an extraordinarily rich variety of philosophical, psychological, and historical references--from Aristotle and Freud to Nazi ideas about purity--and on legal examples as diverse as the trials of Oscar Wilde and the Martha Stewart insider trading case, this is a major work of legal and moral philosophy.