A gut reaction to moral transgressions

The Boston Globe has an excellent article on whether ‘gut feeling’ emotions, particularly disgust, are the unrecognised basis of moral judgements and social customs.

It’s an in-depth feature article that gives a great overview of the idea that social judgements may have an emotional basis, and, more controversially, that this tendency may have developed as part of an evolved aversion to things thought likely to cause infection or disease.

Research has shown that people who are more easily disgusted by bugs are more likely to see gay marriage and abortion as wrong. Putting people in a foul-smelling room makes them stricter judges of a controversial film or of a person who doesn’t return a lost wallet. Washing their hands makes people feel less guilty about their own moral transgressions, and hypnotically priming them to feel disgust reliably induces them to see wrongdoing in utterly innocuous stories.

Today, psychologists and philosophers are piecing these findings together into a theory of disgust’s moral role and the evolutionary forces that determined it: Just as our teeth and tongue first evolved to process food, then were enlisted for complex communication, disgust first arose as an emotional response to ensure that our ancestors steered clear of rancid meat and contagion.

But over time, that response was co-opted by the social brain to help police the boundaries of acceptable behaviour. Today, some psychologists argue, we recoil at the wrong just as we do at the rancid, and when someone says that a politician’s chronic dishonesty makes her sick, she is feeling the same revulsion she might get from a brimming plate of cockroaches.

In psychology, there is lots of interest in people who have a selective problem with certain emotional reactions. ‘Psychopaths‘ are widely considered to have a selective lack of empathy, and I often wonder whether there are people who have a selective lack of disgust reactions.

There also seems to be little consideration of how disgust reactions are altered by context. For example, lots of common sexual acts seem quite unpalatable if done outside of a sexual context, despite the fact that this doesn’t change how hygienic they are.

The Boston Globe piece does a great job of covering the science in the area and it’s also worth mentioning that Edge recently posted videos and articles from a recent conference on ‘The New Science of Morality’ that has some great discussion from the leading researchers in the field.

Link to Boston Globe on ‘The surprising moral force of disgust’.
Link to Edge archives of the ‘The New Science of Morality’ conference.

6 thoughts on “A gut reaction to moral transgressions”

  1. There was a paper published a while back by Martha Nussbaum called “The Politics of Disgust” that covered this topic from the vantage point of laws that restrict consensual sexuality.

  2. The book Supersense, by Bruce Hood, has an excellent discussion of disgust in relation to superstition and fears of contamination.

    As for the disgust equivalent of the psychopath- none of the examples given in this article disgust me, and it’s very difficult for me to understand why they bother other people. I wouldn’t have any problem drinking a glass of juice containing a sterilized cockroach. I do experience disgust, but mostly with things that could actually make me sick- rotten food, feces, or blood. Wearing Hitler’s cardigan wouldn’t bother me at all. There’s probably a strong genetic or learned component to all of this; my parents and brother also exhibit very low levels of disgust.

  3. There was some research about right-wing leanings and disgust – sitting in a metro seat warmed by another human bottom was the example, if I remember rightly. It surprised me, because whilst being right over on the disgust scale, my politics are way left and, unless I mistake him, George Orwell had the same conflict and recognised it, to boot. The trick is to take one’s feelings less than seriously, as simple products of evolution, and go for the correct line of behaviour in ethics – not that that’s a easy path to find, either.

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