Does Disgust Have Moral Force?

An interesting but occasionally infuriating article by Drake Bennett in the Boston Globe argues that research into the psychology of disgust undermines systems of morality. Here are some claims that I find particularly poorly justified:

The agnosticism central to scientific inquiry is part of what feels so dangerous to philosophers and theologians. By telling a story in which morality grows out of the vagaries of human evolution, the new moral psychologists threaten the claim of universality on which most moral systems depend — the idea that certain things are simply right, others simply wrong. If the evolutionary story about the moral emotions is correct, then human beings, by being a less social species or even having a significantly different prehistoric diet, might have ended up today with an entirely different set of religions and ethical codes. Or we might never have evolved the concept of morals at all.

[…]

To Haidt, all of these results buttress his belief that moral reasoning is simply an after-the-fact story we create to explain our instinctive emotional reactions, in this case a strongly held but arbitrary feeling of disgust. “Moral reasoning is often like the press secretary for a secretive administration — constantly generating the most persuasive arguments it can muster for policies whose true origins and goals are unknown,” he wrote in a 2007 paper in Science.

I’m sure that for some people on some issues disgust can ground their moral judgments. But that’s not the same as saying that moral judgment simply is disgust – which is a philosophical question that no amount of empirical science could ever answer. (The article doesn’t give any space to philosophical views on the matter.) Moreover, I think it far more likely that in most circumstances disgust is a post facto emotional response to something we already believe to be wrong on other grounds. Indeed, the article does present some evidence on this score:

But to David Pizarro, the most interesting — and perhaps most important — question to answer is how flexible disgust is, how much it can change. Fifty years ago, many white Americans freely admitted to being disgusted by the thought of drinking from the same drinking fountain as a black person. Today far fewer do. How did that change? Did their sense of disgust ebb as they spent more time in integrated restaurants and workplaces and buses, or did they find ways to actively suppress their feelings? Pizarro isn’t sure, but he’d like to find out.

Did people stop being racist because they stopped finding integration disgusting, or did they stop finding integration disgusting because they decided it was OK? The latter seems like the only plausible account.

Share

2 thoughts on “Does Disgust Have Moral Force?

  1. “Moreover, I think it far more likely that in most circumstances disgust is a post facto emotional response to something we already believe to be wrong on other grounds.”

    Most circumstances? Are you suggesting that, of all of the possible disgusting things out there, we’ve already thought about most of them, and have a preconceived notion of what we’re going to choose is and is not disgusting? You’ve never been surprised by anything you find disgusting? That seems unlikely to me, but let me know if I’m misinterpreting what you’ve written.

    “The latter seems like the only plausible account.”

    To my mind, the reverse seems more plausible. Maybe I’m different than most other people, but I think my emotional reactions are tempered by my rational reflections. Do you believe our emotional response comes only after rational consideration? (Or irrational consideration, perhaps?)

    I can imagine a circumstance where I come upon some event that is entirely new to me, and I react with disgust, but upon later reflection, I realize that my disgust was unwarranted. Or realize that it was warranted. The point is that I reacted first with disgust, and then I though about it.

    But, to be fair, I can also imagine the reverse, as you suggest, where I realize upon reflection that some event or other was in fact a disgusting display of human behavior (maybe when I realize what really occurred). So maybe the reaction proceeds in both directions.

    Either way, I find the latter to be hardly the only plausible account.

  2. Moreover, I think it far more likely that in most circumstances disgust is a post facto emotional response to something we already believe to be wrong on other grounds.

    What that statement means, and what I meant by it, is that in most of the occasions when we experience disgust at a human behavior, the reason we experience disgust is that we already believe that human behavior to be wrong.

    Maybe I’m different than most other people, but I think my emotional reactions are tempered by my rational reflections. Do you believe our emotional response comes only after rational consideration?

    It depends. But in the specific case of integration to which this statement (“the only plausible account”) referred, I do think it is wildly implausible that white Americans lost disgust at racial integration, and then and therefore came to believe it was OK. The only plausible account of white Americans’ loss of disgust at racial integration is that they first came to believe that racial integration was OK, and then and therefore lost their disgust about it.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s