The Right, the Wrong and the Disgusting

The wrong and the disgusting

Posted Mar 20, 2012

We find a variety of objects, actions and practices disgusting, and often we cannot articulate why. The gut reaction of disgust is one that frequently prompts individuals to conclude that whatever it is that elicited the disgust response is in some way worthy of disgust, and in some cases we go further, concluding that whatever elicited the disgust response is morally objectionable, or downright wrong.

This has led philosophers to wonder what relationship, if any, there is between the emotional response of disgust, and the moral status of that which elicited the disgust response. Some philosophers have argued that the emotional response of disgust is an important one in navigating the moral realm. Such philosophers think that it is a response that provides evidence, though perhaps defeasible evidence, that that which elicited the response is morally wrong. Moreover, such philosophers often also think that the response of disgust offers us moral guidance where reason offers us none. The thought here is that a disgust response can provide evidence that some action is wrong, even if we cannot articulate, by citing reasons, why such an action is wrong.

Other philosophers are sceptical of the role that disgust might play in morality. Experimental data such as that very famously collected by psychologist Haidt provides an interesting place to consider this clash of views. Haidt presented to subjects a number of scenarios that provoked a "gut reaction" about whether the actions were right or wrong, where the gut reaction in question often included disgust. But the scenarios were carefully crafted so that they involved no harm to any of the agents mentioned in the scenario. One scenario described a case in which someone has a dog that dies a natural death and that person subsequently cooks and eats the dog. Most subjects had a gut reaction that this was wrong. A second scenario described a brother and sister who on a single occasion have safe sex, suffer no psychological repercussions, and indeed report that their relationship is stronger than previously. Again, most subjects reported having a gut reaction that the action was wrong. In both cases, however, subjects found it difficult to offer any reasons for their judgements. That, of course, was because the experiment was designed in such a way that the scenarios were stipulated to be ones in which no harms resulted from either action. Thus subjects could not appeal to harm caused to the dog, or to the brother or sister, in order to justify their moral judgements that these actions were wrong.

Philosophers who think that disgust is a special faculty that offers a guide to moral truths which, at least in some cases, reason cannot reach, will likely think that these Haidt cases are grist to their mill. Here, they will argue, are cases where the acts are indeed wrong, but we cannot articulate why. All we have to guide us is our reaction of disgust, and that is why disgust is so important.
Philosophers who think that disgust is not a special faculty that offers a guide to moral truths will think that the Haidt cases give us reason to be sceptical of disgust. For, they will argue, these are cases in which we have a strong negative emotional reaction to certain actions, but cannot provide any basis for the associated moral judgement. These philosophers suppose that if we cannot articulate reasons, then likely there are no such reasons, and if there are no such reasons then the moral judgements are false. Thus the emotional reaction of disgust misleads us in the Haidt cases by giving us an emotion reaction that leads us to conclude that the action is morally wrong, when in fact it is not.

The sorts of cases considered by Haidt are not the best ones when considering the role of the disgust response. This is because they are designed to be cases in which it is controversial whether the actions are morally wrong, but where it is almost certain that the scenarios described will produce a disgust response. Thus those who think that disgust is a good guide to the moral will simply maintain that the actions described are indeed wrong, while those who doubt the role of disgust will likely maintain that these are cases in which the actions are not wrong and disgust has led us astray.

But sceptics of disgust can appeal to cases where there is broader agreement regarding the moral status of some set of actions. For instance, there was clearly a time during which the marriage of persons from different ethnicities provoked a disgust response in a significant number of people, and many of those people held the belief that such marriages were wrong. By the lights of most of us now, this seems like a case in which disgust was not a good guide to the moral truths. Though it is somewhat more controversial, homosexuality is anther good example. Homosexual acts or relations did, and still do, produce a disgust response in some people. In the past this response was associated with the view that such acts and relationships are wrong. That is a much less common view these days, and is at least prima facie another case in which the disgust reaction comes apart from the moral truths.

At this point one might point out that just because there are cases in which disgust reactions have led us astray does not mean that those reactions are not some evidence as to the moral truths. Our senses sometimes lead us astray, as does our reason, but we do not abandon them in our quest to understand the world. Perhaps disgust is like that. Then what we need to know in order to better use the disgust response to find out the moral truths is when such responses are likely to lead us astray, and when they are to be trusted. By analogy we have a science of vision that tells us when we are likely to experience visual illusions and we have logic and critical reasoning to tell us under what conditions our reasoning faculties are likely to let us down. One we know under what conditions a particular faculty is "dodgy" we know when to trust it and when not to do so.

One current problem we face in making moral judgements is that we often use disgust as evidence about the moral truths even though we are not in possession of any sort of theory that tells us when (if at all) disgust is a good guide to those truths. Disgust sceptics are thus right to be provisionally sceptical of appeals to disgust, and right to be worried by the sheer emotive force that disgust exerts on us, in the absence of us knowing whether any particular instance of experiencing the emotion is morally salient or not.

Some disgust sceptics are not just of the view that disgust often leads us astray in our moral judgements and that we have no account of when it is reliable, but they go one step further, arguing that insofar as we have any understanding of the role of disgust, that role suggests that disgust has no role in pointing to moral truths. Daniel Kelly, a philosopher at Purdue, has a recent book that makes this claim. His key thought is that disgust is an emotion that is the result of an evolutionary process, and one we understand that process we see that we have no reason at all to think it is ever a guide to the moral truths.

He argues that the disgust response initially evolved to keep us healthy by preventing us from eating toxic foods or coming into contact with diseases. This explains why we are naturally disgusted by certain foods and waste products (faeces, blood, mouldy food, rancid meat, maggots etc). Of course, evolution likes to play it safe, so we are often disgusted by foods that are not, in fact, toxic or by products that are not, in fact vectors for disease (some people find the prospect of eating snails disgusting even though they are neither toxic nor disease ridden when bred and cooked correctly, likewise for eating raw meat, bugs, jelly fish, etc).

Our evolutionary system overgeneralises. Foods that have something in common with those that are toxic or liable to spread disease often produce a disgust response even when we know full well they have neither of these features. So the disgust response, while useful in keeping us safe from salmonella, is not an infallible guide to what is bad for us to consume. If this is the primary function of the disgust response, then clearly we have no reason to think it any guide to the moral truths, and good reason to think it no guide at all to the moral truths.

Kelly hypothesises that the disgust response was later in evolutionary history co-opted for use in complex social settings such as those we find among the great apes. His thought is that the emotion of disgust evolved a second function—to help cement group relations by producing disgust responses to various members of ‘out' groups or to their behaviours. These disgust responses are highly plastic—they vary across different groups, cultures and situations—but they had the same overall effect of strengthening relations within a group by helping to define and reinforce group boundaries of various kinds. This function of disgust is supposed to explain why at least some people find certain physical abnormalities disgusting, or find certain human practices disgusting (homosexuality, incest) or find the members of certain races disgusting (racism and xenophobia).

If this is the right account of the second function of disgust, then this function gives us little reason to think that disgust is any guide to moral truth. After all, there is little reason to think that the behaviours and members of outside groups are morally wrong simply because they are the behaviours and members of outside groups. If disgust is just a way to mark out the "them" from the "us" then it is a poor guide to figuring out what is right and wrong.