Disgust, one of our most basic emotions, is fundamentally a biological adaptation which helps us to keep away from ingesting substances that could make us sick or even kill us – faeces, vomit, phlegm, blood, urine and rotten meat are universally seen as disgusting because they contain harmful toxins. One gram of human faeces can contain 100 million viruses and over a million bacteria. Steven Pinker has called this “intuitive microbiology“. Disgust is apparently unique to humans. I do perhaps have an unhealthy interest in this subject – this summer I took my family to an exhibition, Dirt: the filthy reality of everyday life, at the Wellcome Collection in London. If you feel so inclined, you can see the exhibition here.
Some of our disgust is hard-wired – when disgust first emerges in young children, at the age of around three, it is a consequence of brain maturation, not early experience or cultural teaching. Disgust can also be learned, because while some things are universally dangerous, others vary according to the environment. A fascinating area is that of food taboos; one man’s meat is another man’s poison. Indeed animal flesh is especially susceptible to environmental pressures. Pork is the classic example. In the climate of the Middle East eating it was dangerous. Thus a religious taboo prohibiting it emerged both among Jews and Arabs. At least they can agree on that! Of course this taboo then takes on a life of its own. With modern refrigeration it is perfectly okay to eat pork anywhere in the world. However the taboo remains.
If disgust were limited to gastronomy it would more of a curiosity and it would have less social relevance. But, there has been what is known as an exaption. This is when a trait that evolved because it served one particular function, comes to serve another. They occur in anatomy; Bird feathers are a classic example: initially these may have evolved for temperature regulation, but later were co-opted for flight. And exaptions occur in behaviour. In this case disgust has entered the realm of morality. MRI studies have shown that lying, cheating, and stealing, behaviours that may threaten group cohesion or co-operation, activate areas in the brain associated with disgust. And these days there seems to be a lot of indignation going around.
Whenever I read about moral disgust two scenarios, involving incest and frozen chickens, often seem to crop up. There is an online survey called Taboo, which asks you to judge a number of controversial moral scenarios including these two:
Sarah and Peter were brother and sister. They were on vacation together away from home. One night they were staying alone in a tent on a beach. They decided it would be fun to have sex. They were both over 21. They had sex and enjoyed it. They knew that for medical reasons Sarah could not get pregnant. They decided not to have sex with each other again, but they never regretted having had sex once. In fact, it remained a positive experience for them throughout their lives. It also remained entirely their secret (until now!).
A man goes to his local grocery store once a week and buys a frozen chicken. But before cooking and eating the chicken, he has sexual intercourse with it. Then he cooks it and eats it. He never tells anyone about what he does, never regrets it and never shows any ill effects from behaving this way. He remains an upstanding member of his community.
Both scenarios involve no harm to its practitioners and third parties are not hurt. I won’t go into the chicken for now, but the first scenario is a particularly thorny question. The incest taboo is a human universal, which is so powerful it goes beyond blood relations. I am referring to the Westermarck effect, or reverse sexual imprinting. This kicks in when two people who live in close domestic proximity during the first few years in the lives of either of them become incapable of feeling sexual attraction. This phenomenon, first described by the Finnish anthropologist Edvard Westermarck, has been observed in many places and cultures, such in the Israeli kibbutz system. In kibbutzim children are raised communally in peer groups, based on age, and not biological relation. One study showed that out of the nearly 3,000 marriages that occurred across the kibbutz system, only fourteen were between children from the same peer group. And of those fourteen, none had been reared together during the first six years of life.
How do we explain these taboos to ourselves? Jonathan Haidt, a professor of psychology at the Universityof Virginia, coined the term moral dumbfoundedness to describe our reactions. He found that when presented with these scenarios people give a reason. When that reason is stripped from them, they will find another one. When the new reason is stripped from them, they bring up another one. Only when they run out of reasons will they admit defeat – “I don’t know; I can’t explain it; it’s just wrong.” This is moral dumbfoundedness.
There is a school of thought that believes that deep-seated revulsion should be seen as a sign that an activity is intrinsically harmful or bad. One proponent of this view is Leon Kass, who was chairman of President George W. Bush’s commission on bioethics. He argues that while disgust is not an argument, “In some crucial cases, however, it is the emotional expression of deep wisdom, beyond wisdom’s power completely to articulate it.” This is the wisdom of repugnance. This way of thinking has important practical implications: Kass argues that the idea of human cloning is disgusting, and therefore should be banned. Having said that, he also thinks that eating ice cream cones undermines our dignity:
“Worst of all from this point of view are those more uncivilized forms of eating, like licking an ice cream cone… This doglike feeding, if one must engage in it, ought to be kept from public view, where, even if WE feel no shame, others are compelled to witness our shameful behaviour.” What Freud would have made of this quote, I shudder to think. I don’t like psychobabble but this man definitely has some “issues”
While I am in favour of spontaneous order and organic change, I find Kass’s arguments unconvincing. I am especially worried about the danger of false positives. History is littered with examples of groups and individuals being considered disgusting. Philosopher Martha Nussbaum has critiqued disgust-based morality because it can become a justification for persecution of out-groups:
“Throughout history, certain disgust properties – sliminess, bad smell, stickiness, decay, foulness – have repeatedly and monotonously been associated with Jews, women, homosexuals, untouchables, lower-class people – all of those are imagined as tainted by the dirt of the body“.
Male homosexuals have been a traditional target and not just in the past. In From Disgust to Humanity, Nussbaum, a prominent professor of law and philosophy at the University of Chicago, explains that much of the political rhetoric around gay rights is bound up in the language of disgust, with words like vile, revolting, contaminate and defile being the currency. In crude terms, much of the anti-gay argument is bound up in faeces and saliva, germs, contagion and blood. You may think that Nussbaum was exaggerating, but in the United States gay rights can inspire a very visceral response. At a recent state Judiciary Committee meeting the New Hampshire state Representative, the Republican, Nancy Elliott, decided to enlighten us with her views on homosexuality. During a debate on a proposal to repeal the state’s same-sex marriage bill, she described anal sex “taking the penis of one man and putting it in the rectum of another man and wriggling it around in excrement.” You can see the video here.
The bottom line is that it is impossible to find a correlation between what disgusts us and any moral norms. If only it were that simple! As we have seen reactions of disgust often have their origin in our most atavistic prejudices. The more I look into the origins of morality, the more confused I get. Well that’s enough pontificating for today. I fancy a bite to eat. Kentucky Fried Chicken followed by a Cornetto would seem to fit the bill.
By coincidence Jonathon Haidt has a piece about the Wall Street protests at reason.com: The Moral Foundations of Occupy Wall Street.