Morality: what’s disgust got to do with it?

Kathleen
Taylor has got an interesting recent piece in the Guardian
about the importance
of the emotion of disgust for our moral lives. “If you had a dog”, she asks,
“and it died a natural death, how would you feel about roasting and eating it?”
Most of us would be revulsed by such an idea. And yet by hypothesis we
would not be causing the dog any harm whatsoever; suppose also we made sure
that the meat was adequately prepared so that it did not pose a health risk to
us and our children. Why should eating the dog raise any moral issue at all?

 

When
asked to justify a judgment of that kind, most people find themselves at a
loss. Psychologist Jonathan Haidt knows this well. He is now famous for
studying people’s reactions to imaginary cases where agents do things that most
of us find disgusting, but nevertheless don’t harm anyone. The dead family dog
that gets cooked and eaten for dinner is such a case. Another, much discussed
one involves a brother and sister, Julie and Mark, who while on a vacation trip
end up having (safe) sex with one another. They enjoy the experience and find
that it has enriched their relationship, but decide never to do it again. Most
subjects to whom Haidt put the case were convinced that Julie and Mark had done
something wrong. However, they had trouble justifying their judgment. Some
suggested for instance that the incestuous act might produce offspring with genetic
defects – but such an outcome had been ruled out from the start by the
specifics of Haidt’s example. When this purported justification was shown to be
inadequate, the subjects often fell back on another one (“it will wreck them
emotionally”), which proved to be equally inadequate; and so on, until they
were forced to admit that they didn’t know why Julie and Mark’s sex act was
wrong. Most of them, nevertheless, stuck firmly to their initial judgment that
their behavior was wrong – they didn’t change their minds even when faced with
their inability to justify their verdict.

 

What
exactly should we conclude from such findings? A number of people have argued
that they show our gut reactions in such cases to be misleading, unable to
serve as a respectable basis for a moral judgment. We have no grounds for
declaring that it is somehow wrong to eat your deceased pet dog, or to have sex
with one of your siblings in circumstances like Julie and Mark’s. True, many of
us might find such behavior repugnant, but this is of no moral significance.
Our judgment is on a par with, for instance, judgments about the taste of
Marmite. One might feel disgusted by Marmite and completely fail to understand
how anyone could possibly enjoy consuming it, but surely no one in that such
situation will want to say that Marmite consumers are doing something wrong by
eating it (and if anyone wanted to say something like that, we could hardly
take him seriously). These are matters of sheer personal preference, what Kant
referred to as judgments about the “agreeable”. While we justly condemn an
action as morally wrong if it involves, for example, killing an innocent
person, we are not entitled to do the same simply because the agent happens to
disagree with our own personal preferences, no matter how strong these might
be.

 

But such
a conclusion seems too quick. It implies that all the relevant cases
unambiguously fall into one of two clear-cut categories, expressions of pure
personal preference (such as judgments about the taste of Marmite) and
full-fledged moral judgments. This seems wrong: cases like those imagined by
Haidt precisely suggest that there is quite a large grey area between these two
“pure” categories, where the appropriate status of a particular judgment will
be a controversial matter. Those who run the line of argument just described
are presupposing that an action can only be morally wrong if it involves
inflicting harm on somebody else. But we need not accept such a presupposition.
Many serious philosophers have rejected it: virtue ethicists could for instance
describe an action as wrong on the grounds that it is servile, even if it
doesn’t harm anyone (it might even benefit the agent himself). Kant regarded
all actions that violate the categorical imperative as wrong, independently of their actual consequences for others. A number of us care
not only about benefits and harms to others, but also about our own and other
people’s character, the nature of our relations to our family, friends,
colleagues, etc. We believe that some dispositions, or ways of relating to
other human (or to non-human) beings are healthy and appropriate, while others
are sick and inappropriate: the latter include incest, or eating one’s deceased
pet dog in the absence of cultural conventions declaring this to be a
respectful way of treating the animal, in the same way as burial is. And not
only do we make such judgments, we also think that it is quite fit to make them
and act on them, that they are an important part of what makes us decent human
beings. If incest became fashionable around us, most of us (I take it) would
disapprove of such a trend, and would probably try and stop it. But few of us
would want to do the same if Marmite gained in popularity, no matter how much
we might hate the taste of it.

 

One might
nevertheless insist that the presupposition about harm being a precondition of
an act’s wrongness is correct. But one cannot argue that studies like Haidt’s
have shown it to be correct, and that explaining the wrongness of some action
by saying that it is “disgusting” is equivalent to saying that one doesn’t know
why it is wrong; this would simply beg the question against normative theories
that reject the presupposition. It is perfectly reasonable to give feelings of
disgust or revulsion an important place in our moral lives. True, such gut
reactions can sometimes be morally misleading, as evidenced by the great number
of people who feel outraged by Haidt’s pet-eating case, and yet have no qualms
about eating chicken raised in the hell of factory farms, simply to satisfy
their selfish culinary preferences. Surely the latter practice deserves much
greater moral censure than the former. So gut feelings cannot serve as guides
to moral judgment and behavior without proper regulation. Some of them should
be disregarded entirely. Others, as Taylor mentions, do have a role to play in
our moral life.

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5 Responses to Morality: what’s disgust got to do with it?

  • Dennis Tuchler says:

    Are you talking about tabus and their effect on persons’ judgment? Take a look at From Disgust to Humanity …etc. by Martha Nussbaum of the U. of Chicago Law School. The book looks at attitudes to same-sex marriage. Intellectuals who should know better let their emotions (disgust at the sexual practices of homosexuals) guide them to resist marriage by homosexuals with one another. President Obama, a good Christian, accepts civil unions (I think) but resists the idea of same-sex marriage. Is this procedure over substance? It must be, because many intelligent homosexuals resist accepting civil unions in stead of marriage.

    Tabus, of course, inform the morality of a culture, and I suppose that can’t be helped, given that the cultural norms dominant in a social system produce the basis for rules of morality and (if they are different) ethics.

  • Thanks for the reference, Dennis. When it comes to homosexuality, I think feelings of disgust can, but need not distort people’s moral judgments about the practice. As a heterosexual male, I might perhaps feel disgust if I were to be shown gay porn; but that doesn’t commit me to regard homosexuality as morally wrong, as I can still recognize that there need not be anything fundamentally inappropriate about a romantic relationship between two men – on the contrary, such a relationship could be valuable in much the same way heterosexual relationships are. But it seems more difficult to accept that the same could hold of incestuous relationships, where it’s the attitudes that people take to one another, rather than just the sexual practice involved, that revulse us. In the case of homosexuality, my revulsion is of no moral significance, just as in the case of Marmite, but in the incest case it does seem to have such significance. Maybe the mistake made by the people you mention (I haven’t read Nussbaum’s book) is that they draw moral conclusions from feelings of disgust that have no moral significance. Of course, some of them might retort that it’s the way homosexuals relate to another that revulses them, not just their sexual practices. But to this we should reply that their feelings of revulsion are inappropriate, not that such feelings can never ground evaluations about what is right and wrong in a fully respectable sense of these terms.

    Maybe, as you say, we cannot get rid of taboos; but even if we could do so, would we want to? Though some people might give a positive answer just for the sake of its shock value, I suspect very few of us would sincerely say “yes”.

  • Peter Wicks says:

    I find this a fascinating discussion, and is related to comments I’ve made on other posts suggesting that moral responsibility is fundamentally a matter of choice. If so, it seems clear that we cannot exclude gut reactions as a legitimate driver for moral judgements. What we can perhaps do, though, is to require that our judgements are logically coherent (which is relevant in the dog/chicken example).

    As far as homosexuality is concerned, most liberal/secular people (such as myself) would regard tolerance as a necessary corollary of more general moral principles to which we subscribe. To be consistent, though, I would have to accept that opposition to homosexuality is a legitimate moral position (since morality is a matter of choice and there is nothing intrinsically incoherent about being opposed to homosexuality). And to do so, I am finding that I have to ignore my gut reaction.

  • Dennis Tuchler says:

    Two quick comments on your post of 4-27. 1. Your distinction between the two cases probably indicates that there is a difference in strength of the relevant tabus. I think this is true in the US and the UK (more true in the UK) Most cultures have an incest tabu; even ancient cultures in which brothers and sisters of the royal clan coupled, the incest tabu was enforced against the rest of the population. 2. Homosexuality has had religious significance in several cultures. In the Hebrew bible (somewhere in Leviticus) and, by implication in some of the Epistles, there is a prohibition on homosexual conduct, at least by males. The tabu, of course, preceded the biblical prohibition, and must be related to the tribal need to expand in terms of population, so that it could be secure against other tribes and expand in terms of territory.

  • Ana says:

    One day people on this ignorant planet might realise that a feeling of absolute disgust and repulsion often comes from a past life experience so horrific that they enter a rebirth determined not to be corrupted or tainted by similar experiences. Psychology and psychiatrists know nothing much about the mind. They twitter on about the conscious and sub conscious mind but they could not even tell us where or what the mind is. They assume it sits around your brain somewhere. The catchcry now is that if you have a stong aversion to certain behaviour, most likely a part of you wants to engage in it. Bollocks. Moral people abhor violence and sexual depravity just as our ancestors did and, as has been taught to us through the Pure and Holy Ones. The flesh, our body, is a spacesuit,,,,,Why waste our short lives rubbing it and shoving things into its orifices!!!? Grow up children and get out of the dirty mud puddles. You are splashing us with your filth and nonsense.

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