May 26, 2011

Disgust, Magical Thinking, and Morality

If I had a sterilized dead cockroach, would you be willing to look at it? Pick it up? Touch it to your lips? [1] Drink a glass of juice after dipping the cockroach in it? [2]

Psychologists have found that we tend to be less than enthusiastic about these actions. The reaction of disgust we have to an object, like a cockroach, tends to spread to other objects that it comes in contact with. Disgust, in the parlance of psychologists, acts like a contagion. In some cases, subjects can avoid the disgust reaction by taking some positive step, like washing their hands. In other cases, subjects remain disgusted by the object. [3] This second kind of contagion, in which the disgust reaction spreads and cannot be eliminated, is often referred to as "magical thinking." We know the cockroach can't contaminate the juice since it's been sterilized, but still the juice revolts us.

In many cases, this kind of "magical thinking" is irrational and harmful. But we shouldn't be so quick to dismiss this phenomenon. While disgust can be massively destructive, serving as an impetus to morally abhorrent ideologies and actions (racism, anti-Semitism, homophobia, etc.), might it also serve a constructive purpose in moral life?

The cockroach example seems silly, but consider some other cases closer to the heart of morality. Suppose you are researching Nazi Germany and find some photos in an archive of a lamp. As you inspect the photos, you might have a passing curiosity, wondering who owned the lamp and why it was photographed. On closer inspection, you come to the realization that the lamp is in fact made with human skin.

What is the morally appropriate reaction to coming across such shocking evidence of moral depravity? The answer is no doubt complex. One might appropriately feel rage at those responsible for these crimes against humanity, sadness at the depth of evil that has been perpetrated, compassion and solidarity for the victims robbed of their lives and dignity, and a passionate commitment to do one's part to prevent future atrocities. However, there's another reaction that seems appropriate, perhaps even demanded: a visceral, stomach-turning repulsion that presses one to look away from the photos, put them down, and move away from the archive. Not only does this seem perfectly rational, it may be a moral failure not to have some such reaction.

A claim of that sort might seem out of place in ethical theory. Are there really moral principles governing when we ought and ought not feel disgusted? In the context of an ethics of virtue and character, however, the claim is well motivated. The disgust reaction is a powerful psychological force leading us to avoid certain actions and objects. In short, it is a powerful tool for developing a morally sensitive character. It is also more than that: it is a failure of one's moral sensibilities not to be repulsed by certain kinds of heinous crimes. Someone who does not have those emotional and physiological responses is out of touch with moral reality, just as someone who is hallucinating is out of touch with the reality of the external world. Whether in a virtue ethics or a sentimentalist ethics, disgust can have a key role to play.

Not only does the disgust reaction have an important place in the moral life-- albeit a precarious one, given the destructive role that disgust can play-- but it also has an important counterpart in our moral discourse. The everyday vocabulary of moral discourse, unlike the carefully selected bits of that discourse that tend to be focused on in moral philosophy, is incredibly rich with terms of both appraisal and condemnation. Certain kinds of actions are not just bad, wrong, or unjust, but vicious, depraved, wicked, or disgusting. Philosophers have paid more attention to such thick moral concepts in recent years, but "disgusting" as a term of moral condemnation is a particular kind of thick term. Not only does it mix the descriptive and evaluative, but it does so by reference to the reaction of disgust itself. An action labelled disgusting is one that, according to the speaker, one should find disgusting. (The much weaker reading, on which a speaker's saying "X is disgusting" only entails that the speaker is disgusted by X, doesn't do justice to the case of moral disgust we considered earlier.) This normative claim about how one should react to certain kinds of actions is an additional normative element to thick terms like "disgusting," since to call an act "disgusting" is also to find a more general fault in it (it's bad, or vicious, or unjust, for example).

Unpacking and justifying claims about what one should find morally disgusting is a difficult task, just as it is hard to specify when one should be angered, or saddened, or regretful. Disgust, no less than these emotions, can be felt appropriately or inappropriately, and has a crucial role to play in our moral lives, even if we can imagine beings for whom some of these responses do not play such a role. We should ask the same question that Hume put to Hutcheson:
"If morality were determined by reason, that is the same to all rational beings; but nothing but experience can assure us that the sentiments are the same. What experience have we with regard to superior beings? How can we ascribe to them any sentiments at all? They have implanted in us for the conduct of life like our bodily sensations, which they possess not themselves." [4]

[1] Rozin, Haidt, McCauley. "Individual Differences in Disgust Sensitivity: Comparisons and Evaluations of Paper-and-Pencil versus Behavioral Measures." Journal of Research in Personality 33, pp. 330-351(1999).
[2] Rozin, P. "Technological Stigma: Some Perspectives from the Study of Contagion." In J. Flynn, P. Slovic and H. Kunreuther (Eds.), Risk, Media and Stigma – Understanding Public Challenges to Modern Science and Technology, (London: Earthscan Publications Ltd., 2001). pp. 31-40.
[3] Nemeroff, C., & Rozin, P. (1994). The contagion concept in adult thinking in the United States: Transmission of germs and interpersonal influence. Ethos: The Journal of Psychological Anthropology, 22, 158-186.
 [4] Letter dated March 16, 1740. Life and Correspondence of David Hume, ed. John Hill Burton, Volume I (Edinburgh: William Tait, 1846), p. 120.


  1. I've gotta respectfully disagree with this post. It seems to be based on an equivocation. I disagree that feelings of disgust (in the sense of disgust used in examples of the lamp and the cockroach) is necessary for virtuousness or to be a moral person in the circumstances described.

    There are two distinct meanings of disgust that's relevant. It seems to me that moral disgust is actually just moral resentment, indignation or outrage. It is used essentially metaphorically. It is very different from the feeling of disgust at cockroaches, etc which is similar to the sense of "visceral" "stomach-turning" repulsion you described.

    Now it may be true that disgust in some morally abhorrent acts in the later sense of repulsion will induce or translate to "disgust" in the moral sense but it is neither necessary nor sufficient to be a moral feeling in itself at may not be necessary at all in the circumstances you describe.

    I will however agree with you that "disgust" in the more metaphorical sense of resentment, moral outrage, indignation etc is a feeling that morally righteous beings must have in certain circumstances. But I don't believe that disgust in the other sense of repulsion is.

    Your example of the lamp for instance. Imagine that a very virtuous skin-graft surgeon sees the lamp for the first time. She will likely have no sense of repulsion because she surgically works with human skin all the time. Yet if she is a good person at heart, she will, it can at least be argued, necessarily feel moral indignation, outrage, etc. Assuming that repulsion is often a intermediary to moral "disgust," in this case, our surgeon seems to wholly bypass that affective intermediary. Thus this is the main part I am in disagreement with in your post:

    "However, there's another reaction that seems appropriate, perhaps even demanded: a visceral, stomach-turning repulsion that presses one to look away from the photos, put them down, and move away from the archive. Not only does this seem perfectly rational, it may be a moral failure not to have some such reaction."

  2. NChen,

    That's an interesting suggestion, but I don't think there's equivocation here. I think that our reaction to an embezzler is very different than our reaction to a more horrific crime. With embezzlement, we might feel some outrage, but with certain sorts of immoral acts we are missing something if we are merely outraged and indignant but not disgusted. So I'd accept your distinction, at least for the sake of argument, but don't think it undermines what I've said.

    I should add that many philosophers tend to discount disgust because they think it's ultimately a conservative phenomenon (e.g. reinforcing certain outdated cultural taboos). To this point, I would make a similar move as Appiah in "The Honor Code" and point out that disgust can also play a progressive role. Once something like racism becomes disgusting to a society and not just disapproved by it, it is more likely that the society will move away from racism.

    Not only can disgust be a valuable response in its own right, it can also serve an important progressive function that is often unacknowledged. This is all compatible with thinking that in many cases disgust is misplaced and anti-progressive, of course.

  3. Hi Matt,

    Sorry but I just don't see it. I don't see how *any* crime ought necessarily to induce the same kind of disgust as the gut-turning, repulsion some people have of cockroaches.

    The example that I gave above of the surgeon is meant to show that of the example of the lamp. The Surgeon seems to me to be wholly moral and virtuous despite the fact that he felt no repulsion in the sense that we might had we seen and understood the history of the lamp. Now he does feel resentment, moral outrage or indignation which may be termed moral disgust as common usage justifies as sometimes apt a term but does so in a metaphorical way I suggested.

    So I don't see of any morally wrong acts as necessarily inducing disgust in the sense of repulsion in virtuous individuals. It seems that I can always come up with a counter example suggesting someone that may even be a moral saint but doesn't feel that kind of disgust.

    "To this point, I would make a similar move as Appiah in "The Honor Code" and point out that disgust can also play a progressive role."

    I would agree with this but I was simply denying what you said above which I take to be a much stronger claim. You claimed that it may be "demanded" of morality and that not feeling that stomach-turning repulsive disgust is a moral "failure." My point is that it isn't necessarily a moral failure at all. In fact, I doubt it to be even that important in most moral situations.

    Disgust may sometimes be an effective instrument for social progress but I seriously doubt it is necessary for any person to have that feeling in any moral circumstance to be moral. I certainly can't think of any circumstances that ought to necessitate disgust in virtuous all individuals. However, it seems much more plausible to me that virtuous individuals seem to be necessitated in having certain kinds of feelings of resentment, moral outrage, etc at signs of gross violations of morality.

  4. Thanks for your reply, that's helpful. A few quick points:

    1. My comparison to honor was really a separate point that I had meant to make in the main post.

    2. The surgeon example
    Distinguish (i) disgust at the immorality of an act and (ii) disgust at various aspects of the act that might be disgusting independent of the moral status of the act.

    I'm happy to say that your skin-graft surgeon doesn't feel disgust in sense (ii)--he's not disgusted by skin in these sorts of contexts-- though I would insist that he (and anyone else) ought to feel it in sense (i).

    3. I would resist assimilating "moral" disgust to indignation or outrage. These are different kinds of responses. Outrage or anger at a perceived wrong involves certain sorts of physiological qualities, like flushing, increased heart rate, etc, which might be different across individuals. Disgust, in the sense I'm targeting, will have different bodily concomitants, and will also target different sorts of acts (though there may be overlap). My point about the embezzler was meant to show that in some cases indignation is called for but not digust.

  5. I'd just like to ad further that as far as using disgust as a tool for moral social reform can also be harmful. I actually that that is the case more often than not because disgust can be so biased and culturally-centric. Take prejudices regarding food and how that sometimes translates from disgust into feelings of resentment, outrage, etc. There is no good reason to think that eating cats and dogs are worse from a moral perspective than eating cows and pigs but many people in the west think that is the case based not on reason but on disgust of eating cats and dogs. That is a moral failing, a prejudice, as opposed to a effective implementation of disgust in furthering moral development.

  6. I agree that disgust can play a harmful social role. I think the challenge is to figure out how to take responses like disgust that can be socially harmful and find ways to transform them into positive responses. We shouldn't try to banish disgust from society, but rather channel disgust responses toward their appropriate objects, just as we need not banish honor and dishonor from society provided that we can mitigate their negative aspects.

  7. According to the new ethics, virtue is not restrictive but expansive, a sentiment and even an intoxication.

  8. Morality/ethics, etc. are nonsense. A psychological disease of herd animals. There is no such thing as 'moral philosophy', only rationalization of incoherent non-concepts in the service of witless ape prejudices.

  9. When someone tells me I have a 'duty' I punch him in the face.

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