Disgust & MoralityPublished 27 November, 2012
Paul Bloom and David Pizarro recently did a bloggingheads conversation about the link between disgust and morality. I watched most of it, and I thought it was interesting, likely worth a listen to people interested in either or both of these topics. As something of an aside, there’s an interesting moment (43:37) in which Pizarro talks about how evolutionary psychologists have been “fighting the good fight” in terms of “going way out of their way” when talking about political hot topics such as rape in emphasizing that discussing rape or studying is not the same as condoning it. Pizarro says that “we” – by which he means, I think, social psychologists – should try to emulate evolutionary psychologists in this respect.
So, that’s interesting, but not really closely related to the main question, which is why there is a strong relationship between morality and disgust. In fact, as Josh Tybur, Deb Lieberman, Peter DeScioli and I argue in a forthcoming paper, there are really two issues that might be teased apart, but it seems to me are often sort of mixed together.
The first issue is perhaps the more obvious one, which is that lots of disgusting things are moralized. That is, in various places and at various times, lots of acts that evoke the emotion of disgust are seen by a community as “wrong,” meaning that if someone is found to have committed the act, they are subject to punishment by whatever means the society in question uses.
Which acts evoke the emotion of disgust? Well, two important sorts of stimuli seem to do it. The first is cues to the presence of potentially harmful pathogens, such as dead and decaying plants and animals. Disgust seems to be well designed to take pathogen-related cues as input, motivating appropriate defense, typically keeping one’s distance. The second sort might be glossed as sexual activities with partners that represent fitness losses: Sex with one’s close genetic relatives, for instance, because of the well-known potential costs of inbreeding.
It is easy to imagine a world in which people find these sorts of things disgusting but not immoral. Indeed, Pizarro discusses this briefly, alluding to how he might find nose-picking disgusting, but not worthy of punishment. From this is seems clear that not all disgusting things are moralized. Yet, many disgusting acts are frequently moralized, though the examples that come to mind easiest are probably in the context of sexuality, such as incest and, the perennially favorite example, having sex with a chicken (see image, below).
On the surface, moralizing disgusting acts seems somewhat puzzling for a few reasons, though how puzzling you find this might depend on your theory of the function of morality. First of all, if you think that morality has something to do with the prevention of people doing things that are good for them but bad for others, then it seems perverse to find disgusting acts immoral. After all, disgusting things are the sorts of acts that people by and large don’t want to do in the first place. If morality is for constraining others’ behavior, then why “constrain” people to avoid the very things we all tend to avoid anyway?
Second, and related to the question of why constrain people from doing things they don’t want to do, why constrain people from doing things that don’t hurt others? If, again, your theory of morality has something to do with bringing about benefits, then why are disgusting things, which by and large only hurt the actor (or an unfortunate chicken) moralized? (If you don’t like the chicken example, masturbation – which has not infrequently been moralized – also fits here because no one — and no other entity — is involved.) Third, a perennial question is why people want to prevent others from acts that might even help the moralizers, with homosexuality being the typical example. From the standpoint of a man competing for mates in a society, obligate homosexuality would seem to be a benefit, not a cost, insofar as it diminishes competition.
So, why disgusting acts are so often moralized seems to be mysterious. This is not to say that some haven’t offered possible explanations, most notably perhaps my University of Pennsylvania colleague Paul Rozin, and, more recently, Jon Haidt, who has written extensively on the subject, focusing attention in particular on the idea that morality binds people together in groups.
There is a second link between morality and disgust. Many acts that are not disgusting in either the pathogen sense or the sexual sense are labeled as “disgusting.” So, even though there is no disease or sex involved, one might say, “Fred’s stealing $100 from the Widows and Orphans fund was disgusting.” Such linguistic forays are made with enthusiastic frequency. As I was writing this, I Google-Newsed (?) “disgusting” and found the non-payment of wages to employees – a moral violation: in this case, a contract breach – thusly: “To treat staff this way in one of the wealthiest countries in the world, regardless of the circumstances surrounding their place of work, is disgusting.” I also found that Anthony Hopkins referred to “Oscar groveling” as disgusting, and this from a man who played a guy who ate other people’s faces. (I quite recommend Google-Newsing “disgusting” and looking at the acts so categorized. It feels slightly voyeuristic, but has redeeming scholarly virtue.)
So, two questions. Why are disgusting acts moralized, and why are (non-literally-grossing-out) morally wrong acts labeled “disgusting?”
I hope you enjoy the bloggingheads.