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.