Sex with Chickens at AAR/SBL

I had a great time going to AAR/SBL for the very first time. I got to talk in two different sessions about Unclean or material related to it.

In my first session Unclean was a part of the Colloquium on Violence and Religion book session. There I talked a bit about disgust, monsters, infrahumanization and scapegoating. The basic idea I talked about is how disgust-based group psychology masks social scapegoating by creating monsters through the process of infrahumanization. (That last sentence is so ridiculously nerdy, but if you've read Unclean you know what I'm talking about.)

In my second session I participated in a new SBL program unit The Bible and Emotion. In this inaugural session a panel was convened to discuss the work of Martha Nussbaum as a resource for connecting emotion and biblical studies. Nussbaum chaired the session and responded to the papers. Given that Nussbaum is sort of a big deal and that I use her work in Unclean it was exciting to get to meet her and participate.

My talk was entitled "Beyond Disgust and Dumbfounding" and it focused on material from Chapter 4 in Unclean. The basic argument I made was that when the church regulates its experience with the idiom of purity it becomes vulnerable to what Jonathan Haidt calls moral dumbfounding. To introduce moral dumbfounding to the audience I read the moral dumbfounding scenarios from Haidt's research, scenarios I've shared before on this blog. To recap, Haidt reads scenarios like this to people asking them to judge what, if anything, is morally wrong and why it might be wrong:
1. A family’s dog was killed by a car in front of their house. They had heard that dog meat was delicious, so they cut up the dog’s body and cooked it and ate it for dinner.

2. A brother and sister like to kiss each other on the mouth. When nobody is around, they find a secret hiding place and kiss each other on the mouth.

3. A man goes to the supermarket once a week and buys a dead chicken. But before cooking the chicken, he has sexual intercourse with it. Then he thoroughly cooks it and eats it.
Haidt's observation in relation to these scenarios is that people have a strong visceral response that something is wrong in each scenario. However, people tend to struggle with coming up with a principled moral reason why something is wrong. This disjoint between moral emotion and moral reasoning is what Hadit calls moral dumbfounding.

Anyway, responding to my paper Nussbaum wanted to revisit each scenario, one by one, to see if there was, in fact, a consistent moral principle being violated. Nussbaum is a classic liberal, so she was trying to apply the harm principle to each scenario. I don't think she was very successful in this as Haidt did his homework and crafted scenarios that precluded harm. For example, with the incest scenario Nussbaum reflected on issues related to power in sexual relations between adults and children. But Haidt's example is about siblings. Regarding the dog, Nussbaum talked about animal ethics and not harming animals. But the family didn't kill the dog, the dog was already dead.

And finally she got to the chicken scenario. She starts with these words, "Now the case of necrophilia is an interesting example..." She then begins to muse about the moral issues involved in necrophilia. And I'm thinking to myself, "This is what happens when you invite a psychologist to AAR/SBL, you get people like Martha Nussbaum musing about necrophilia. Good times."

On a final note, I did stick to my guns and spoke extemporaneously (background here). It seems to have been appreciated. The feedback I received was that my presentations were lively, engaging, and humorous.

Musing about sex with chickens, I'm sure, helped with all that...

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23 thoughts on “Sex with Chickens at AAR/SBL”

  1. This in some hidden way is a large reason I think your blog and indeed your contribution to theology/psychology is important. Where else can we wholeheartedly and without embarrassment discuss the moral validity of necrophilia? I like that you are critical of Nussbaum also, even though you clearly respect her work and her thinking. You model the way we as church need to engage with one another.

  2. Thanks. I do think coming at theology and the bible from a different disciplinary perspective does help raise a different set of questions than the well picked over topics of the traditional theological syllabus.

  3. I guess if the sex was with a live chicken Nussbaum could have brought in the assymetrical power-relations argument unavailable to her with necrakotaphilia.

  4. Professor Beck, 

    I actually just finished reading Unclean and really enjoyed it.  I wonder if you have read Rabbi Jesus by Bruce Chilton?  I think the way he connects the teachings of Jesus specifically to competing interpretations of Jewish purity laws is an interesting counterpoint to the way you address questions of purity and religion

    (to be upfront Bruce was a professor of mine in college and is, in addition to being frighteningly intelligent one of the nicer people I have ever met)

  5. And for something slightly more on topic I wonder if their might not be a reasonable harm argument to be made in these scenarios, less on the individual level but for the maintenance of a community with healthy norms and values.  Specifically that the first and third examples relate to respect for the dead and for bodily autonomy although they cross species boundaries.  Is a community that doesn't respect others when they are dead going to respect them when they are living?  I'm hesitant about this argument because it doesn't have a natural stopping point.  Why is sex with the chicken wrong but eating it not.  And if eating the chicken isn't wrong why is eating the dog (although in that case we have differing levels of reaction based on the relationship with the creature while alive, I ate dog while travelling in cultures where is was part of the cuisine but would never think about eating my St Bernard)

    Either way it seems as though our reactions to the first and third examples could be seen as perfectly rational, in the interest of the society we live in, and our interests in living in a functional community.  We know that when people can't understand that others experience pain and suffering in the same way they do it makes the commission of horrific acts much more likely.  These could be considered "training taboos" stopping us from eating away at the edges of the empathy that helps us live together.

  6. Extremely tangential, but recent studies show that you don't need to be apologetic for being 'ridiculously nerdy.'

  7. Oh, I do think that, give time to reflect, harms issues can be found. But that sort of makes Haidt's point: we have to go looking for those answers, and many are strained. But prior to all that reflection the moral feeling of a volition exists and, I'd argue, prompts the cognitive engine to kick into gear. Affect remains primary and precedes locating examples of harm.

  8. Thanks! I've been wanting to do a post about this trend for some time but never got around to it.

  9. It's not always about harm or power relations or something. Sometimes it's just plain, go-f***-yourself wrong.

  10. 1. A taboo based on the perceived “friendship” with a pet.

    2. Prelude to incest, which we are instinctively programmed to avoid
    assuming the siblings grew up together, ultimately based on a rational desire
    to prevent genetic deformity in offspring.
    3. Multiple areas of disgust: inability for mutual consent (this applies
    to both bestiality and necrophilia aspects of this case and tangentially to
    rape), eating a sex object also touches upon cannibalistic urges (because the
    fantasy is presumed to be a live human), last but not least is the natural
    revulsion to our own body's excretions.

  11. I was reading "Unclean" and subconsciously patting myself on the back for not being particularly affected by taboos--until I read the third example, followed by the quote about Catherine of Sienna at the beginning of the next chapter, and thought that they were the two most disgusting images I'd read in my life! :D

  12. My mind runs into this dumfounding all the time, thanks to the Professor's blog.  I get the disgust response to something (broadly speaking, including "someones" in "some configurations") I see in United, and immediately I wonder to myself, "why, precisely, does that make me vomit?"

    These are great thought experiments to engage the practical muscles of discernment and self-evaluation.  Not that the results are always fact, they seldom are.

    At our Tuesday morning study some months ago, I tried the "spit in a cup and then drink it" test with the guys, and it led to a lot of really good introspection.

  13. It seems to me that this question goes back to our animal understanding of the world: we tend, on a deep level, to sort other creatures into non-overlapping attractive categories of Potential Food, Potential Mate, or Family (blood and affective kin), there being other, non-attractive categories like Rival and Threat that can overlap with the former categories to make interaction more interesting. "It's family, but it's trying to kill me... now what?" 

    The conflict these scenarios raise for me boils down to "Don't eat that, it's family!"  "Don't [mate with] that, it's family!" or "Don't [mate with] that, it's food!"  

  14. What if  -


    1. In 1971 just south of Saigon, an impoverished
    and starving family with three young children finds a fresh dead dog in front
    of their home and without hesitation, puts its body to nutritional use!


    2. In 678AD “Yeasoquatyal” a young and aspiring high
    priest of the “Order of the Moon”, who was allowed to marry the beautiful
    daughter of a rival tribe leader, offered 24 succulent young puppies as a
    wedding gift to the bride’s family in preparation for their wedding banquet.


    2a. A few years after the “Flood of Noah”, when
    his teenage grandchildren begin to mature and approach adulthood, they
    frequently snuck off together to explore the sexual feelings that were at work
    in their young minds and bodies.


    3. Overcome by grief from the tremendous loss of
    his first wife of thirty years who used to cook him amazing chicken dinners every
    Sunday, followed by intense love making sessions, John went to his local
    supermarket on that very special day and purchased a large free-range bird to
    fornicate with and fry up!


    There is a
    plentitude of infinitely intense and pejorative examples from both contemporary,
    as well as historical periods that would suffice to make the point that
    “Cultural and Situational Context”, along with the flippant nature of changing
    demographics, wars and climate can and does effect the moral order and judicial
    perceptions of humans. The passengers of the lifeboat from the Mignonette
    in 1884 had the unique opportunity to discover
    this first hand.


    The obvious burning question is front of
    our face is: How far will we allow ourselves to go (or be pushed) to retain our
    personal sense of honor and or our spiritual integrity in any given situation.
    (?) What factors determine the depth of our fortitude - genes, parents,
    religious convictions, etc?


    Rather than allow themselves to be burned
    to death by an outside force, some jumped from the “Twin Towers” in a last act
    of defiance with the clear message that it was they who were in control of
    their destiny, not the bastards who flew the planes! Often in retrospect,
    “Masada-like” scenarios are seen by many as being heroic and courageously
    defiant, whereas the participants might feel otherwise.


    If my “Parasympathetic Nervous System” tells me rest and digest or to feed and breed at any
    given moment during the day, will my culturally inculcated religious paradigms
    in my conscious mind intervene and supersede in a positive fashion? Can
    catecholamine hormones be controlled or inhibited by the conscious mind through
    prayer, meditation and the Holy Spirit? To postulate that “God knows our hearts”
    would assume that he also knows our bodies as well and all the physiologically machinations
    that make us tick. Can we ever overcome the vessel that we’re trapped in? The
    problem of our mind body duality is seemingly ever before us or maybe it’s just
    an artifice, a

    misconception of our conscious mind.

  15. Hmm. On #1, have you read Wittgensteinian Cora Diamond's famous article "Eating Meat, Eating People?" Here's one excerpt: "Again, it is not 'morally wrong' to eat our pets; people who ate their pets would not have pets in the same sense of that term. (If we call an animal that we are fattening for the table a pet, we are making a crude joke of a familiar sort.) A pet is not something to eat, it is given a name, is let into our houses and may be spoken to in ways in which we do not normally speak to cows or squirrels. That is to say, it is given some part of the character of a person. (This may be more or less sentimental; it need not be sentimental at all.) Treating pets in these ways is not at all a matter of recognizing some interest which pets have in being so treated. There is not a class of beings, pets, whose nature, whose capacities, are such that we owe it to them to treat them in these ways. Similarly, it is not out of respect for the interests of beings of the class to which we belong that we give names to each other, or that we treat human sexuality or birth or death as we do, marking them in their various ways-as significant or serious. And again, it is not respect for our interests which is involved in our not eating each other. These are all things that go to determine what sort of concept 'human being' is. Similarly with having duties to human beings. This is not a consequence of what human beings are, it is not justified by what human beings are: it is itself one of the things which go to build our notion of human beings."

    Similarly, here an excerpt from Wittgensteinian Carl Elliott's A Philosophical Disease on something like #2: "This is not the way our moral grammar works. In fact, just the opposite. Our moral attitudes are not grounded by a theory of persons; they are built into our language. ... My point is simply that our moral attitudes are no less a part of the meaning of the word 'person' than these other criteria. Trying to define what a person is in order to get moral guidance about the acceptability of ending a being’s life is like a man trying to define what 'sister' is in order to get moral guidance about whether it would be morally acceptable to have sexual relations with her."

    Also, although his work deals with trolley cart problems, I wonder if Allen Wood's arguments against moral intuitions would apply here also. Here's an excerpt from his book Humanity
    As End In Itself:"I
    have long thought that trolley problems provide misleading ways of thinking
    about moral philosophy. Part of these misgivings is the doubt that the
    so-called ‘intuitions’ they evoke even constitute trustworthy data for moral
    philosophy. As Sidgwick was fully aware, regarded as indicators of which moral
    principles are acceptable or unacceptable, our intuitions are worth taking
    seriously only if they represent reflective reactions to situations to which our
    moral education and experience might provide us with some reliable guide. Poll-takers
    are well aware that the way a question is framed often determines the answer
    most people will give to it. What might seem to us genuine intuitions are
    unreliable or even treacherous if they have been elicited in ways that lead us
    to ignore factors we should not, or that smuggle in theoretical commitments
    that would seem doubtful to us if we were to examine them explicitly. ... The
    deceptiveness in trolley problems is indirectly related to their
    cartoonishness, however, in that it consists at least partly in the fact that
    we are usually deprived of morally relevant facts that we would often have in
    real life, and often just as significantly, that we are required to stipulate
    that we are certain about some matters which in real life could never be

    I was wondering if you would ever do a series on the cult phenomenon of 60's and 70's. A definite cross in phsycology and theology.

  17. This is deeply important, IMHO. Morality was never about getting through life without harming anyone. It was always about learning how to view the world. Nobody is harmed by eating the dead dog--except that now nobody in the family can ever view rightly a pet dog. Nobody is harmed by necrophilia with a chicken--except that the person who does it is now unable to view rightly sex. Of course, it's all circular--viewing rightly means recognizing that these behaviors are Just. Plain. Wrong.

  18. Indeed. The dumbfounding Haidt believes he's "discovered" is actually the product of the modernist perspective on morality presumed by his questions.

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