Post No.: 0272
The emotion of disgust probably evolved to protect us from the tiny microorganisms and viruses that can harm us from the inside, while the emotion of fear probably evolved to protect us from the bigger threats that can harm us from the outside. Apparently, knowing what to fear seems to be learned, or developed, rather than innate from birth – babies don’t fear snakes, rats, flames, heights or foreign/unfamiliar-looking people from birth but seem to learn, or develop, fears towards these things as they grow. We express our emotions via our facial expressions and body language to socially communicate threats and opportunities to others, so this could be one way we socially learn what to fear or find disgusting.
Disgust can make us value something less highly – things that come into contact with something deemed disgusting can make us desire that thing less, even if that thing was previously highly desired (even an unopened and unused tampon placed on a cookie, for instance). Something disgusting touching one piece of candy in a bowl full of candy will likely make us not want to eat any of that candy, whereas something desirable touching one piece of (fake) poo won’t make that piece of poo or any other piece around it more desirable! (Entire reputations can similarly be easily tarnished after one damaging act, while it usually takes more than one virtuous act to build them.)
Our sensitivity to disgust generally correlates with our political orientation – more politically liberal/left-wing people are generally less easily disgusted, whilst more politically conservative/right-wing people are generally more easily disgusted. We can temporarily change a person’s tolerance to disgust by making them experience some disgust – the smell of flatulence in the room (erm, that wasn’t me, that was the human – woof!) or even merely getting people to think about contamination and the threat of diseases, such as having hand sanitiser everywhere, can make some people become less tolerant of homosexuality and other purity violations or taboos than they were before. Inducing feelings of disgust or reminding people of cleanliness can therefore be said to cause relatively more politically conservative views. People with larger emotional responses to threats (e.g. to personal invasions of space, having a generally pessimistic attitude) are also more likely to have politically conservative opinions. This should all make sense because to be more conservative is to be more risk-averse.
So a simple reminder of disgust or contamination can get people to temporarily change their political, consumer and/or moral decisions. But it seems odd that feelings of physical disgust (which make sense to protect us from physical diseases and infections) overspill into areas of moral disgust that have nothing inherently to do with such physical threats – but over-generalise is what our intuitions typically do. People sometimes even feel compelled to physically cleanse themselves in order to ‘morally cleanse’ themselves after considering something disgusting.
But we can learn to tolerate a previously-considered source of disgust with enough exposure to it and experience of it not causing us any problems. Different cultures can teach people to find disgust or tolerance in certain things, but our tolerance to disgust does not seem to generalise across domains (e.g. if we learn to tolerate the dissection of animals, it doesn’t make us tolerate urination in the street (but, sometimes, what’s a dog to do?!)) So, in more detail, disgusts and fears tend to generalise but tolerances to disgusts and fears generally don’t, which sort of parallels the candy and (fake) poo scenarios earlier.
The reaction of disgust is sometimes a symptom of having a lack of education. For example, doctors, who’ve been educated on health matters and have ‘seen it all before’, as it were, won’t react to seeing a disease or infection like someone who hasn’t been educated to be familiar with what they’re seeing. Doctors will react more calmly and reasonably. And they’ll know whether something is contagious or not rather than apply an over-generalised fear of ‘I might catch whatever they have from them’. Therefore disgust is often a sign of our own ignorance.
Most people have at least something that they over-generalise as disgusting, whether it’s offal as food even though they otherwise eat meat, an intolerance of different sexualities, or something else. Fears tend to become generalised when we first learn about them because it’s overall better to miss an opportunity but survive than miss a threat and die i.e. we tend to overly err on the side of caution. To refine our over-generalisations, we again need more personal education, exposure and experience.
Seeing people more physically naked seems to make us care about them more for them seeming more vulnerable, but our view that these people have moral agency (as in praiseworthiness or blameworthiness for their actions) goes down slightly too. This might be because sexual arousal affects people’s sense of morality? Even though this effect works on both naked men and women, the objectification of women in culture would therefore be a real problem. We are more likely to participate in immoral behaviours if aroused too.
If shown a funny video before considering the ‘trolley problem’ dilemma, more people become willing to push a heavy person off a bridge to stop a runaway train so that this heavy person dies instead of five other people dying on the track. Drugs like alcohol affect our judgements too. The pattern is that our current emotional state strongly affects our judgements, more than any internal rational calculations – and our current emotional state depends highly on the environmental, situational or contextual factors present. One could argue that this will at least break any deadlocks because there sometimes aren’t clear rationally right or wrong answers to a given situation, such as in the trolley problem. Nonetheless, reason is a slave to emotions. Yet this doesn’t mean that cold-blooded calculations and reasoned arguments have no place in decisions of morality, and it doesn’t mean that emotions never come into reasoned calculations either (e.g. joy is an emotion, and we want to calculate what will give everyone the most of this furry emotion in relation to another emotion such as sadness). Emotions and reasons often go paw-in-paw.
Now people intuitively associate things that personally feel disgusting with things that must ‘logically’ be immoral. But since what causes us disgust changes despite our genes and vulnerabilities to parasites and pathogens not really changing during this time – it suggests that disgust is not a robust or reliable guide for making moral decisions. ‘Outsiders’ in the far past might have risked bringing in harmful foreign microbes that one’s group didn’t have the immune system to defend against, but this over-generalisation between ‘foreign people’ and ‘harmful microbes’ is too unreliable. And in reality, interracial relationships are far less risky than sexual relationships with people who are too genetically close to each other!
So disgust has not evolved to be accurately responsive to what we value as morally good or bad, or even safe or risky. It’s generally irrational to deem something healthy as disgusting or gross (e.g. eating safe-to-eat insects that have been properly prepared) – surely something healthy to consume should’ve evolved to be appetising to consume, and vice-versa. But our instincts are too crude at times, which is why they need refinement via education, reason and experience. Of course, other factors will affect whether something is moral to consume, rather than merely safe or healthy, such as whether something feels pain or not (it’s in debate whether insects feel pain or not, or maybe some do and some don’t express what is (anthropomorphically) interpreted as feeling pain). But even such moral considerations are subjective because most people who eat meat accept the consumption of animals that are reared and slaughtered ‘as painlessly as possible’.
Some cultures find some acts disgusting while others find the very same acts as elevated (e.g. consuming (i.e. cannibalism) versus burning the bodies of the dead). People generally regard any kind of sex they wouldn’t personally want to have or see as disgusting. We expect moral codes to be universal and immutable, yet disgust is not fixed – the more we get used to something, the less disgust we feel for it, which in some cases is bad (e.g. clubbing seals to trade their fluffy fur – boo! I have many seal friends in the navy) and in some cases is good (e.g. seals clubbing, because some really like their trance music and shouldn’t be discriminated against in nightclubs – being more exposed to diversity reduces discrimination). And lots of immoral acts have also been committed in the name of ‘ridding the world of what/who is considered disgusting’ (e.g. racism, homophobia, anti-miscegenation, antisemitism).
Propaganda often uses the emotion of disgust to try to build negative reactions towards and dehumanise entire ethnic or social groups of people – so disgust can ironically spur people to do terrible and immoral things, including acts of genocide or ethnic cleansing.
This all means that disgust is not a good guide for morality – arguing about what is moral or not based on what feels personally disgusting or not will not convince seasoned philosophers.
…And well, what if people found you and your face disgusting?(!)
Woof. I cannot see your face but I’m sure you’re far from disgusting – only beautiful people, inside and out, read this blog!