Monday, August 16, 2010

Psychologists on Disgust and Morality

Here's a piece mostly on psychologists trying to show that morality is nothing more than a matter of disgust.

Although these are experiments philosophers ought to be interested in, there really are tons of confusions here. (Science reporting is a dicey game, and generally not very it's not really clear how many of the confusions are real, and how many are artifacts of the reporting.)

For one thing, such "nothing more than" arguments have to be treated fairly carefully. I don't think anyone denies that emotional and visceral responses play a major role in morality, so that's not news. Nor is it really news that there are similarities between more visceral kinds of disgust and moral disgust. The question here that's more straightforwardly philosophical--and the kind of question that we're generally better-prepared to think about than are psychologists--is, roughly: what are the implications of those things?

Without a bit of philosophical training, people tend to leap from premises like 'disgust plays some role in moral judgment' to 'morality is nothing more than a matter of disgust' (whatever the latter might mean...).

But everyone knows that such judgments generally involve some affective element; the relevant question is, roughly: does reason have any role to play in such judgments/reasonings?

Certainly it apparently does. People often have feelings of disgust in response to certain things, and yet recognize that they are not immoral. I, for example, felt extreme disgust at the idea of homosexuality early in life, but as the result of reasoning about the matter, came to recognize that my disgust was ungrounded. At first the negative affective response hung around, kept in check by reason; eventually the affective response even went away.

For another interesting example, consider cannibalism per se--that is, where no killing is involved, as in the famous Andean plane crash. My revulsion at the idea of such cannibalism is extreme, yet I don't think it is in any way immoral.

An interesting question: do we ever conclude that something is morally wrong and yet have no feeling of disgust toward it? Nothing comes immediately to mind...

But, as anyone who's studied Kant should realize, the real question here is not whether or not judgments of immorality and revulsion go together, but, rather: which is the cause and which the effect? Those on the Humean side of things think that the emotional reactions are in the driver's seat; those on the Kantian side think that, at least in some cases, reason is. It makes me happy beyond the telling of it that this is a question we might be able to answer with experiments...but not, of course, if we misunderstand the problem and jump to unwarranted conclusions.

Finally--on the subject of such "nothing more than" arguments: it surprises me that psychologists in this area don't seem to think much about affective responses associated with non-moral judgments and conclusions. People get angry and feel revulsion when considering non-moral matters all the time. For example, they do so when arguing about purely scientific theories--and not just, e.g., evolution and anthropogenic climate change. Really abstruse scientific, logical and mathematical matters can also stir up anger and revulsion...but few are tempted to jump immediately to the claim that science, math and logic are "nothing more than" matters of emotion. In response, for example, to particularly ridiculous new-agey nonsense like all the 2012 stuff, or "facilitated communication," my feelings of revulsion are pretty strong, but it certainly seems that the revulsion in question is a reaction to the objective unreasonableness of the things in question.


Anonymous Anonymous said...


Any psychological researcher who can't distinguish between morally informed disgust and disgust caused by (say) the odor of cadaverene isn't worth listening to. In past eras, such thinkers were the disciples of Decartes, all hung up on the mind-body dichotomy.

For an entertainingand informative exploration of where morality ends and evolutionary reflex begins, I recommend Olivia Judson; both her NYT blog and her popular science book "Dr Tatiana's Sex Advice to All Creation"

-p mac

1:12 AM  

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