Saturday, November 18, 2006

Disgust as a Moral Emotion

For someone who is on record as saying that disgust is worthless as a moral compass, Ophelia Benson seems to be a bit addicted to appealing to it in morally tinged arguments. In recent posts at the Butterflies and Wheels Notes and Comments blog she has managed to call some of Swinburne's arguments 'disgusting', 'truly revolting', asking, "Why doesn't everybody for miles around just tell him 'That's disgusting' until he's so embarrassed he stops saying it?" In an earlier earlier post she talks about disgust at a mixture of abuse and sycophancy, in a yet earlier post she talks about how preaching against condom-abuse is disgusting, in an even earlier post she calls a comment by Karen Armstrong disgusting, and so it goes on back through the archives; and in every single case these comments can easily be shown to be doing moral work.

I don't bring it up in order to pick on Ophelia Benson. The moves she is making are certainly not out of the ordinary, and she would certainly be a less interesting to read if she took more trouble to be consistent. Rather, I think the quandary into which Benson has backed herself -- being officially against treating disgust as morally informative while being practically unable to stop treating it as such -- is just what the official position gets you. The official position arises from thinking that the real question with regard to disgust is "Does disgust have any role to play in moral reasoning?" when it actually is "What role does it play?" The inconsistency is not so much a flaw as the reassertion of good sense against the absurdity of the official view.

I would suggest that there are several false assumptions that tend to get in the way of clear thought about this subject.

(1) There is only one kind of disgust. This assumption, that all disgust can be treated as if there were simply one kind, seems to be very common; but it also seems to be very dubious. I grab an apple and am about to bite into it, when I suddenly notice it is crawling with worms; a nausea-laced revulsion results. I pick up a book and read a graphic scene in which a pedophile rapes a child, which also creates an intense, visceral revulsion. And note that there's nothing about the latter that's necessarily more 'abstract' or less visceral. But it's not at all clear that the two should be treated as simply one kind of disgust. In other words, how we should think about disgust appears to vary depending on what we are disgusted at. There's a sort of object-dependence to its significance. If it's a disgust due to revulsion at something put in our mouths, or almost put in our mouths, that's very different from disgust at the thought of a person being violated.

(2) Disgust is a reaction to animality. This has become popular among people who follow Paul Rozin's research on disgust; it plays a major role, for instance, in Nussbaum's attack on disgust as a moral emotion. Now, I happen to like a lot of what Rozin does in this regard, and would never say that the research itself is problematic. But Rozin seems sometimes to be rather sloppy when expressing some of his results, and saying things like, "Anything that reminds us we are animals elicits disgust" is as sloppy as you can get. Taken strictly it is obviously false; I just reminded you that we are animals by mentioning the subject, and I doubt you had a disgust reaction simply in virtue of that. And Rozin himself is quite aware that a lot of our disgust reaction is culturally conditioned. Sexual play, foreplay, and the like, for instance, reminds people of their animality over a far greater range of behavior than it elicits disgust And when we try to cash out what features of animality elicits disgust, we really don't have a much more precise view than that they are the features of animality that are gross -- hardly a profound insight. The traits related to disgust are not traits that we most conspicuously share with other animals, if we set aside disgust itself as an indicator. There is, of course, the fact that physical objects of disgust tend to be contaminating in some way. But, again, watching someone eat a beating heart can't be contaminating in quite the same sense that eating one myself would be; and watching someone eat a beating heart isn't contaminating in the sense that the disgust that comes from association with a moral monster is; and in neither case is it clear (without simply begging the question) why we would feel disgust rather than, say, shame or humor at the association. To stretch that far, contamination has to take on figurative senses; what we have is a word useful for discussing all these different kinds of disgust, but very little more. We're missing some key factor here. [As a side issue, with regard to physical disgust why don't people do more research on fun disgust? Perhaps it's just due to being part of the Nickolodeon generation; but having fun with our sense of disgust is a big part of many cultures, although the precise details of it vary from place to place. A lot of the comments about disgust made by researchers make disgust sound so solemn and serious -- which it obviously can be -- but it's like treating fear as a purely negative flight response without considering the fact that people can enjoy being scared. People can enjoy dabbling in the disgusting on occasion. It's not all revulsion. And this is itself an interesting thing.]

Now, I do think that Rozin and others like him are on the right track, and are genuinely uncovering features of disgust; I just think we must guard against premature conclusions about what they've actually shown, such as we find in Nussbaum and elsewhere. It seems to be less that disgust is a reaction against the inhuman than that it itself creates a line between humanity and inhumanity that otherwise might not exist. We can feel sick and revolted at lots of things that aren't animal or contaminating in any strict sense of the term; and many things that are animal or contaminating in a strict sense of the term don't always elicit disgust. Rozin is certainly aware of this himself, since he thinks of disgust in terms of a sort of evolution -- there's a level of disgust devoted to keeping contaminated food out of the body; there's a level of disgust devoted to avoiding animal grossness and mortality, however that's to be understood; and there's a level of disgust devoted to putting out of one's mind things that are found culturally offensive. While Rozin isn't always as careful as he should be in discussing them, the levels simply cannot be conflated. One level is purely sanitary in nature; another Rozin goes so far as to say is the sign of civilization. And that seems along the right lines. Even this stage view of disgust may be attributing more unity to disgust than actually exists; the distinction between physical disgust and socio-moral disgust seems much sharper than this suggests, even though they clearly share some important commonalities (and thus are both kinds of disgust).

(3) If some kinds of disgust are morally wrong, disgust can't be relevant to (good) moral reasoning. This also seems to be a common assumption, at least judging from how people argue. How this is to be squared with the fact that almost everything else related to moral reasoning can take morally wrong form is always left unclear. For instance, some kinds of thought are morally wrong; but it doesn't follow from this that thoughts are not relevant to moral reasoning. It would take a rather elaborate argument to eliminate disgust as a potential source for good moral reasoning; one that is never made.

In any case, how would disgust play a role in good moral reasoning? My own rough view in this regard tends Humean. That is, we start with the inchoate reactions that are developed simply from growing up human, and this inchoate state is fine for a certain level of moral maturity; however, a great part of our moral education involves cultivating these reactions so that they tend to hit the moral mark in cases farther and farther removed from the original ones. In other words, we adapt the response to general rules. The general rules, note, are not doing all the work here; for one thing, if they were, there would be nothing to adapt. Rather, what they are doing is setting up dams that guide the course of the stream; even given the dams, it's the stream itself that does the work of going where it needs to be. And so it is with disgust. Reactions of moral disgust, at least, should be treated with respect as a reason to worry, even if nothing else. It may well be -- and it has turned out before -- that the reaction was unjustifiable, due to a failure to cultivate the sense of disgust properly. But failures to react with moral disgust are in some cases equally unjustifiable, and equally due to a failure to cultivate the sense of disgust properly. It's a bit much to ask that our emotions be infallible guides, particularly since we don't demand the same of the reasoning by which we shape them. But that's precisely what people demand in their attacks on the role of disgust in moral reasoning. To put it in terms that Benson uses in the essay linked to above, it is certainly true that "Ew, ick, gross" and "That's wrong" don't mean the same thing; but that's no good reason for saying that the the sense behind "Ew, ick, gross" has no role to play in the judgment behind saying, "That's wrong."

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