The surprising moral force of disgust
By Drake Bennett | from the Boston Globe
“Two things fill my mind with ever renewed wonder and awe the more often and deeper I dwell on them,” wrote Immanuel Kant, “the starry skies above me, and the moral law within me.”
Where does moral law come from? What lies behind our sense of right and wrong? For millennia, there have been two available answers. To the devoutly religious, morality is the word of God, handed down to holy men in groves or on mountaintops. To moral philosophers like Kant, it is a set of rules to be worked out by reason, chin on fist like Rodin’s thinker.
But what if neither is correct? What if our moral judgments are driven instead by more visceral human considerations? And what if one of those is not divine commandment or inductive reasoning, but simply whether a situation, in some small way, makes us feel like throwing up?
This is the argument that some behavioral scientists have begun to make: That a significant slice of morality can be explained by our innate feelings of disgust. A growing number of provocative and clever studies appear to show that disgust has the power to shape our moral
judgments. 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 behavior. 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.
“Disgust was probably the most underappreciated moral emotion, the most unstudied one,” says Jonathan Haidt, a psychologist at the University of Virginia. “It’s become politically much more relevant since the culture wars of the 1990s, and so within the broader renaissance of moral psychology disgust has been a particularly hot topic.”
Psychologists like Haidt are leading a wave of research into the so-called moral emotions — not just disgust, but others like anger and compassion — and the role those feelings play in how we form moral codes and apply them in our daily lives. A few, like Haidt, go so far as to claim that all the world’s moral systems can best be characterized not by what their adherents believe, but what emotions they rely on.
There is deep skepticism in parts of the psychology world about claims like these. And even within the movement there is a lively debate over how much power moral reasoning has — whether our behavior is driven by thinking and reasoning, or whether thinking and reasoning are nothing more than ornate rationalizations of what our emotions ineluctably drive us to do. Some argue that morality is simply how human beings and societies explain the peculiar tendencies and biases that evolved to help our ancestors survive in a world very different from ours.
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thanks, Arts & Letters Daily