11 August 2010

"Eeeww!": Disgust and morality

A few weeks ago the intellectual middleman and founder of Edge.org John Brockman brought together a group of psychologists, neuroscientists and philosophers to discuss the emergent science of morality. It’s a hot topic at the moment, as our technology and methodology become more capable of studying the scientific basis of our sense of right and wrong. It would perhaps be no exaggeration to say that new discoveries in this field will have an impact on society and culture, politics and economics, education and law, possibly on every single facet of our lives as moral beings.

There’s plenty for the interested reader (and viewer, with videos of the discussion) to absorb in the Edge conference. What I’d like to focus on here are the comments of one of the participants, Cornell University psychologist David Pizarro. Speaking on the effects that emotions like disgust can have on our moral judgments, Pizarro described studies conducted by his team that show how the supposedly rational reasons we give for our moral position on any issue is influenced by whether or not we are unconsciously disgusted by violations of our preconceived taboos. More interestingly, those who are easily disgusted tend to be conservative in their moral values.

My stumbling over this bit of information is timely, given the recent overturning of Proposition 8 in California. Though they are shy to admit it, a big factor behind the (often religious) conservatives’ opposition to gay marriage is a feeling of, if not outright disgust, at least squeamishness at the thought of two people of the same gender making the two-backed beast in the privacy of their homes. Of course, some Christians will spout their mantra of “loving the sinner, hating the sin”, which for all its rhythmic poetry is perhaps a disingenuous evasion of this simple truth: they just don’t feel comfortable with the idea of a man tenderly pistoning his tumescent love-muscle into the welcoming rosebud of another man. Hey, even I found it hard to avoid looking away from the opening scene of Wong Kar Wai’s Happy Together, achingly beautiful exposition on love, loss and desire though the film may be.

Incidentally, the psychologist Jonathan Haidt, who was also at the Edge conference, spoke about his concept of the ‘five moral senses’, the foundations of our moral values which are Harm, Fairness, Ingroup, Authority and Purity. Based on studies carried out on people from various cultures and socio-economic backgrounds, Haidt has consistently found that “highly educated liberals generally rely upon and endorse only the first two foundations (Harm and Fairness), whereas people who are more conservative, more religious, or of lower social class usually rely upon and endorse all five foundations.” Pizarro’s studies of the connection between disgust and moral values touches on Haidt’s fifth moral sense of Purity. And since Haidt’s studies show that people who are religious or conservative are likely to consider seriously matters related to Purity, Pizzaro’s easily grossed-out conservative subjects provide further confirmation of Haidt’s findings.

So, if religious conservatives are innately prone to be disgusted by certain so-called ‘unnatural’ acts – nevermind that homosexuality is common amongst non-human animals – which in turn biases their moral judgment of homosexuals, are they entirely culpable for their bigotry? We wouldn’t hold it against vertically-challenged people if they can’t slamdunk. They didn’t choose to be midgets. Likewise if a contributing factor to, say, a Christian’s objection to equal marriage and reproduction rights for homosexuals is his unchosen propensity for feeling disgusted, can you really blame him for expressing his subtle disapproval?


Image courtesy of those lovely folks at the Westboro Baptist Church

UPDATE: 17 August 2010

Here's a more in-depth article by Drake Bennett on morality and disgust.

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