Disgust as a basis for morality

July 4, 2007 | By | 7 Replies More

It is striking that so many conservatives spend so much energy condemning gays.  They don’t just criticize gays; they condemn gays with intense passion.  Nor does this process of moral judgment usually involve any sort of delicate weighing process.  Too often it is a visceral and unrelenting moral harpooning delivered by the likes of Ted Haggard—or, at least, the sort of judgment previously delivered by the then-closeted version of Ted Haggard, whose name is now synonymous with “reaction formation.”

Many of the people who condemn gays on street corners and pulpits remind me of steam boilers on the verge of blowing up.  Anti-gay bigots are rarely if ever attempting to work through the details of any of the three main historical philosophical approaches to morality (consequentialism, deontology or virtue) when they condemn gays.  No, there is nothing much philosophical about the way most people rail against the gays.  They are not driven by any sort of philosophy.  In my experience, they are primarily driven by disgust.

What especially disturbs conservative Christians are images of men kissing men and men having sex with other men.   Such images are so incredibly disgusting to those who hate gays that it has become a favorite insult on the streets and in the military to shout “You’re GAY!”  And when this insult is hurled in the process of casting moral judgment, it is done by people whose faces are contorted with utter disgust.

Because such condemnations of gays are so visceral, this raises the issue of whether disgust is a valid basis for morality. 

My “gut reaction” has been that disgust is a senseless, arbitrary and unworkable basis for a moral system.  There are many reasons. If disgust is a proper foundation for morality, who gets to decide what is disgusting? The conservative Christians of the United States would certainly step up to claim that right and responsibility.  After all, they claim that the U.S. is a “Christian Nation” and that they are especially inspired and guided by the Creator of the Universe.  They are also quite sure that gay sex is immoral. They never seem to tire of making that public pronouncement.  And why stop at homosexuality? Disgust could also serve as the basis for many other “moral” positions.  Therefore, whoever becomes the arbiter of morality-based-on-disgust would also attempt to educate the rest of us as to the evils of nude beaches, public breast-feeding, body piercing, abortion and euthanasia.

All of us should be wary about accepting disgust as a basis for morality, however.  Demographics are shifting and, someday, conservative Christians might be on the receiving end of moral judgment based upon disgust.  How so?  According to the dictates of other cultures American Christians do all kinds of disgusting things.  They should clean up their own act.  Christians do disgusting things like eating pork and wearing leather. Christian women expose their faces and their legs, they talk with men to whom they are not married and sometimes they kiss men in public.  Christian women are sometimes so bold as to appear in public while they are menstruating.  Christians often use their left hands and they commonly wear shoes inside of their homes.  Their homes are filthy because they often live with dogs and cats-some of them sleep with their pet animals.  They drink shameful substances such as alcohol and milk.  These sorts of “disgusting” things could justify lengthy prison sentences in many cultures.  Shame on Christians!

Whoever we choose our arbiter of disgust, then next step is obvious.  Disgust is a favorite excuse for persecuting members of out-groups.  Disgust is thus the unspoken foundation for bigotry.  European Americans have historically characterized people from Africa and China as “dirty” as the basis for depriving them of basic legal rights and human decencies.  The same thing now goes for gays, who conservative Christians commonly characterize as animalistic and unhygienic. How often have you heard this comment: “What’s next, bestiality?”

At this site, I have often argued that “disgusting” things tend to be those things that remind us that humans are animals.  According to many conservative Christians, though, we are not in the same league as animals, as evidenced by our invisible “souls.”  

We are higher than animals, evidenced by the Chain of Being.  This fits in nicely with the up/down metaphor described by Mark Johnson and George Lakoff.  In Metaphors We Live By, Johnson and Lakoff explain that “virtue, goodness and status” are all seen as “up.”  In Moral Imagination: Implications of Cognitive Science for Ethics (1993), Mark Johnson explores various metaphors for moral character (page 50).  One of the primary metaphors used for moral character is purity/pollution.

The “moral,” rational self is high, while the “lower” self is associated with the body and bodily functions.  This up/down, high/low orientation comes to be correlated with purity versus impurity.  The body, with its passions and desires, ties us to that which is dirty, polluted and computer.  The mind, as the seat of reason and will, tries to maintain its purity of rising above and trying to control the body.


  • She kept herself pure throughout it all.
  • His motives/intentions were pure.
  • Sandy seems to have no moral blemishes.
  • “. . . without spot of sin.”
  • “Oh Lord, create a pure heart within me.”
  • Nixon authorized dirty tricks.
  • Scarlet was washed clean from sin.
  • We must keep that fills out of our schools.
  • That trash will ruin our children’s character.
  • Pornography pollutes the mind and soul.
  • He lives in a cocaine sewer.
  • That stinks!  (Said of an immoral action).

The animal connection is a slippery slope, of course, because humans are animals, which opens up a potential cornucopia of bigotry for anyone with an imagination. The recipe is straightforward: anybody you dislike is animalistic or subhuman, justifying all kinds of mistreatment and bigotry.  Many of the people who are struggling socially or economically (think of the homeless) engage in behavior many people would consider disgusting, as evidenced by comments made by police officers and social workers who sometimes enter the homes of such people.  If not carefully constrained, this sense of disgust could be used to further ostracize these millions of people.

I’m suspicious of disgust as a basis for morality because many things that are ostensibly disgusting are good and necessary.  As a teenager, I vividly remember reading The Agony and the Ecstasy, the story of Michelangelo.  Especially intriguing were Michelangelo’s surreptitious journeys to graveyards where he dissected corpses in order to become a better artist.  The same thing goes for doctors, who must dissect cadavers in anatomy courses, engaging in behavior that many people consider disgusting in order to become proficient doctors. 

At bottom, however, my main concern is that disgust is such a primal reaction.  It seems too simplistic to rely on disgust as a moral yardstick.  Why rely upon a primitive unthinking reaction, when other, much more sophisticated and self-correcting yardsticks are available?  Why rely on disgust when we could be focusing on consequentialism, deontology or virtue).  Next to the Golden Rule (or any other formulation regarding reciprocity), disgust seems especially trite and coarse.  Disgust would be the sort of basis on which a toddler would be expected to make moral judgments, not adults.  Adults should not be judging and enforcing conduct of other adults on the basis that something is “icky.”

I have been thinking about disgust as a basis for morality in reaction ever since reading some especially thoughtful articles by Jonathan Haidt, a psychologist at the University of Virginia.  Haidt spends considerable time on this topic of disgust in his 2006 book, The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth and Ancient Wisdom.  The starting point for much of Haidt’s work is that liberals and conservatives keep talking past each other on moral issues:

On issue after issue, liberals want to maximize autonomy by removing limits, barriers, and restrictions.  The religious right, on the other hand, wants to structure personal, social and political relationships in three dimensions and so create a landscape of purity and pollution where restrictions maintain the separation of the sacred and the profane.  For the religious right, Hell on Earth is a flatland of unlimited freedom where selves roam around with no higher purpose than expressing and developing themselves.

(Page 210).  Liberal politics gives wide deference to the self, to the right of individuals to choose their own destiny, to pursue happiness as they see fit.  It is an ownership society based on the assumption that the citizens own their own lives.  For conservatives, it’s not that simple and I disagree with them.  That other people might see my life as “disgusting” is of no legal import. Nor should it have moral consequences that others see my life-choices as disgusting.

Or should it?

Disgust is not actually something we can understand in isolation.  Disgusting things are found toward one end of a long scale.  On the other end of that same scale we find things that give us the feeling of beauty or awe.  This suggests to me that there is overlap between aesthetics and morality.  To some extent, that which is morally proper is infused with beauty and those things that are morally repugnant are infested with ugliness. 

Jonathan Haidt writes persuasively that each of us understands and runs our lives based on both endpoints of this scale, whether or not we proclaim any belief in any supernatural being.

In The Sacred and the Profane, [Mircea] Eliade shows that the perception of sacredness is a human universal.  Regardless of their differences, all religions have places (temples, shrines, holy trees), times (holy days, sunrise, solstices), and activities (prayer, special dancing) that allow for contact or communication with something otherworldly and pure.  To mark off sacredness, all other times, places and activities are defined as profane (ordinary, not sacred).  The borders between the sacred and the profane must be carefully guarded, and that’s what rules of purity and pollution are all about. Eliade says that the modern West is the first culture in human history that has managed to strip time and space of all sacredness and to produce a fully practical, efficient, and profane world.  This is the world that religious fundamentalists find unbearable and are sometimes willing to use force to fight against.

Eliade’s most compelling point, for me, is that sacredness is so irrepressible that it intrudes repeatedly into the modern profane world in the form of “crypto religious” behavior. Eliade noted that even a person committed to a profane existence has

privileged places, qualitatively different from all others–a man’s birthplace, or the scenes of his first love, or certain places in the first foreign city he visited in his youth.  Even for the most frankly nonreligious man, all these places still retain an exceptional, a unique quality; they are the “holy places” of his private universe, as if it were in such spots that he had received the revelation of a reality other than that in which he participates through his ordinary daily life.

When I read this, I gasped.  Eliade had perfectly pegged my feeble spirituality, limited as it is, to places, books, people and events that have given me moments of uplift and enlightenment.  Even atheists have intimations of sacredness, particularly when in love or in nature.  We just don’t infer that God caused those feelings.

These passages got me thinking too.  There are certain places and things that I hold sacred, albeit in a provisional and private sense.  I don’t expect anyone else to agree with me as to what I find sacred.  I certainly would not try to compel anyone to agree with me as to what is sacred.  But, to me, some things seem sacred (in a secular sense).  Here are some examples from my life: Darwin’s tomb, redwood trees, my children, the first house I remember living in, a wristwatch my grandfather gave me when I was eight.  I recognize these objects and places as special, even . . . holy (though, again, not holy in any supernatural sense). 

Now that I’ve admitted that I recognize the awe-inspiring and privately-holy side of the scale, I also see that I make use of the other side of the scale too: those things that are disgusting.  Certain things are just “over the line” for me.  It disgusts me to see people ruining their own bodies by eating, drinking or smoking themselves to death.  It disgusts me to see people abusing their children.  I’m disgusted by intolerance and bigotry.  I’m disgusted when I see people filling the young children’s minds with superstition, fear and intolerance. I would be disgusted if I saw people having sexual intercourse in inappropriate places such as in the middle of a shopping mall or in front of a grade school.  Many things about Las Vegas (as a tourist attraction) are repulsive to me, my problem centering on the amorality and wasteful extravagance.  It’s not that each of these things is equally disgusting, but I am repulsed and disgusted by these sorts of things (this is not an exhaustive list). 

My self-analysis regarding awe-inspiring and disgusting things convinced me to moderate my position on the role of disgust on moral issues.  After doing some soul-searching in preparing to write this post, I came to the conclusion that disgust does play a role in my own moral judgment.  To what extent does disgust play a role in my own moral thinking?  I’m not sure that I can parse out the effects of disgust, though I know it is there.  For instance, it is impossible for me to rule out that disgust is a factor in my view that murder and child abuse are immoral.  I am sure that I am viscerally repulsed by such conduct.  Perhaps it is my disgust that gives me the confidence to hold other people to my moral standard regarding such things as murder or child abuse.

Disgust comes in several flavors and likely plays a role in everyone’s  moral thinking.  To explore your own sensitivity to disgust, I invite you to visit Haidt’s psychology website and taking his Disgust Scale survey (it takes about 10 minutes).

Others have recently commented on the connection between disgust and moral judgment.  In an article called “The Depths of Disgust,” in the June 14, 2007 edition of Nature (available only to subscribers online), Dan Jones asks whether there is “wisdom to be found in repugnance” or whether disgust offers “nothing but support to prejudice.”  His conclusion is that disgust is a deep-seated emotion that is inextricably entangled with morality, though it is too often a poor guide to ethical action.

Jones points out that disgust has adaptive value that was honed by evolution.  Its function “seems to be to prevent people from eating contaminated foodstuffs and to get rid of any they have ingested.  Disgust is related to bodily purity and integrity, with things that should be on the outside-such as feces-out, and things that should be on the inside-such as blood-kept in.” 

What is the connection between visceral disgust and social disgust?  We should first define a term.  Haidt’s website defines “core disgust” as

the “core” of the emotion, which is about defending the mouth from contamination by dirty or inappropriate things like body excretions, certain animals like rats and cockroaches, and certain foods, like ice cream with ketchup.

In the Nature article, Dan Jones writes that experiments have shown that “core disgust” and socio-moral versions of disgust

recruit overlapping brain areas, particularly the lateral and medial orbitofrontal cortex, suggesting that the emotions are related.  These regions of the brain are activated by an unpleasant sensory stimuli, and they connect with other emotion-related areas, such as the amygdala.

When experimental subjects were asked whether they would wear “Hitler’s carefully laundered sweater” and they refused to do so, they were relying upon some of the same brain areas that repel us from eating rotting food, for instance. 

Haidt thinks he has found clues pointing to a physiological reality for moral disgust.  Whereas anger pushes the heart rate up, feeling visceral disgust makes it drop.  With his student Cary Sherman, Haidt showed people hooked up to a heart monitor video footage of morally negative but not viscerally disgusting behavior, such as an American neo-Nazi meeting.  The participants said that the video triggered disgust and anger, and on average their heart rates fell, not rose.  What’s more, those who reported increased clenching in their throat had a greater drop in heart rate, making the link with core disgust look stronger.  “We think that this is the first physiological evidence that socio-moral disgust really is disgust and not just metaphor or anger, says Haidt of the as yet unpublished work.

The Nature article presents evidence that this visceral disgust can affect ethical judgments. When viewing pictures of drug addicts or homeless people, the amygdala and the insula fired up (indicating fear and disgust, respectively) but the prefrontal cortex (which normally is active when considering people in social situations) was less active.  This experiment indicates that disgust can trump empathy and compassion.  “When we respond to a homeless person with disgust, we avoid considering the person’s mind, says [psychologist Susan Fiske].  “We treat the person as equivalent to a pile of garbage.”  The Nature article also cites Marc Hauser, who holds that disgust is an emotion of distancing “of avoiding or expelling the contaminant.”  Disgust is thus capable of fueling the expulsion of out-group members.  Brazilian cognitive neuroscientist Jorge Moll explains that the system for making moral judgments was “cobbled together” from pre-existing brain systems.

The experimental data point to the possibility that our disgust system might have been adapted by evolution to allow us to reject or disapprove of abstract concepts such as ideologies and political views that are deeply influenced by culture, as well as social groups associated with “disgusting” concepts, says Moll.

The Nature article points out that disgust could thus facilitate cohesion within groups by defending against out-groups.

Disgust works for the group as it does for the individual-what is in the group is “me” and what is not is “not me,” says Haidt. “Where core disgust is the guardian of the body, moral disgust acts as the guardian of social body-that’s when disgust shows its ugliest side.

Fiske points to the experimental data to remind us to think twice before relying on disgust as the basis for moral judgment:

History seems to bear this out.  Women (especially menstruating ones), the mentally and physically disabled, and interracial sex have all been viewed with disgust, and are still viewed as such by some.  But few people in liberal societies today would defend such attitudes and many have genuinely ceased to feel them.  If disgust wasn’t a good moral indicator then, why should it be now?

The challenge, then, is to remind people that their feelings of disgust have too often led to persecution and injustice in the past, and these same gut feelings might be leading to comparable injustices in the present.  There is another challenge, as well.  Disgust is not the only basis for determining what is moral.  Haidt has written persuasively on this topic, finding that morality relies upon up to five criteria: harm, fairness, loyalty, authority and purity (disgust).

How much influence should disgust play among these other criteria for what is moral, especially given that disgust has proven to be an unreliable moral indicator in the past?  Based on the evidence presented in this post, disgust should be kept on a short leash.   Consider also that disgust is arguably a more primitive and less intellectual a factor than, for instance, fairness/justice.

Further consider that a recognition that something is disgusting often becomes salient to the point that it overwhelms all other considerations.  For many people, especially conservatives, disgust trumps all other factors because disgust is hard to ignore on a visceral level (I was going to write that disgust is “a bright and shiny thing,” but disgust is actually salient in the opposite sense, in a disgusting way).  Once disgust gets its foot in the door for many conservatives, the process of moral judgment is essentially over.  All that needs to be done is to employ the intellect to concoct something, anything, to spiff up one’s reliance on disgust.  Letting one’s intellect play the role of one’s attorney (as we all commonly do), all you need to say is something like “We oppose gay unions because we need to defend marriage.”

Much is at stake regarding the role disgust should play in moral decision-making.   Should we allow disgust a full place at the table when we render moral judgment? There are grave risks to doing this.  Here’s one example.   Assume that we are attacked by a country that has customs we deem repugnant.  Assume further that we allow our disgust (regarding those foreign cultural traditions) to run rampant in our moral/political thinking.  Assume that we decide to exact our revenge by attacking a country that reminds us of the country that attacked us, because that they have similar traditions—we are disgusted by the traditions of both.  Again, our minds are clever lawyers, and we love to put them to work to spin rationalizations.   Ultimately, we announce that we are “searching for weapons of mass destruction” or that we are “bringing democracy” to the country we attack.  But what if the impulse to attack the “innocent” country (OK, I’ll say it – – Iraq) was based upon our disgust and repulsion at a group of people we considered to be an out-group?   What if disgust was allowed to drive that decision? All it took was prejudice plus an intellect enslaved by human emotions.  Why am I convinced that prejudice drove the decision to invade Iraq?  Just listen to the apologists say things like “We can’t let them get away with 9/11″ or “We’ve got to stop them over there so they can’t get us over here.”  They?  Them?  An obvious conflation of blends the 9/11 attackers with people from Iraq, with whom they have nothing in common, other than the way that Americans think that Middle Eastern cultures are all the same.

How often is the human intellect enslaved by the emotions?  According to David Hume, always:

Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them.

I am in the process of reading additional work by Jonathan Haidt, on which I will be commenting in the coming days.  I am finding his analysis exciting in that it offers a fruitful approach for studying the utterly frustrating and commonplace experience whereby liberals and conservatives talk past one another on the topic of morality.


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Category: Bigotry, Civil Rights, Culture, Good and Evil, Meaning of Life, Politics, Psychology Cognition, Religion, Science, The Middle East

About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.

Comments (7)

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  1. Mindy says:

    I find liver and onions disgusting. I am disgusted by morbid obesity caused by lack of care of the self. I find it disgusting when my dog drags feminine hygiene products out of the trash. Greedy consumerism – utterly disgusting. Hummers? Ew, beyond disgusting. Not even so much the Hummers themselves as the decision to create them for Joe Q. Public in the first place.

    That monthly acne breakout I get? God-awful disgusting. The fact that my daughter thinks it's funny to share a lollipop with the dog? Completely repulsive.

    Immoral? I think not. Maybe the Hummer, yes. Completely immoral, in my book. Greed in general will be the death of our society, I fear. But one cannot legislate away greed, any more than one can legislate away homosexuality.

    I am not, by the way, equating the two. Greed harms, gayness does not. I read an article recently from the Young Turks about us all being gay – to one degree or another. I believe they are correct.

    I also believe that those who doth protest too much are expressing, under the guise of disgust based on puritanical biblical beliefs, the intense fear of facing that part of themselves.

  2. Vicki Baker says:

    This is a very interesting post and I hope to comment in more detail when I have time. One thing springs to mind – that the entire Hindu caste system is based on this. People who DO disgusting things, such as cleaning toilets and tanning cowhides, ARE disgusting.

    Also, George Orwell pointed out how the British class system derived much of its force from the disgust the upper classes felt at the filth and uncleanliness of the lower classes, who had few facilities for bathing compared to the upper classes. Orwell's experiences going undercover as a tramp are filled with vivid descriptions of horrid smells and filth but by willingly undergoing these trials he was attempting to desensitize himself.

    As for reason and emotion, right now I only have this quote from Ben Franklin to share:

    "So convenient a thing it is to be a reasonable Creature, since it enables one to find or make a Reason for every thing one has a mind to do."

  3. val says:

    Trouble is Haidt got it wrong-disgust is not all about 'hiding from our humanity' (as Nussabuam calls it). Not about protecting ourselves from the knowledge that we are human, animal and mortal. It has 3 domains/purposes:

    -avoiding the things that cause us disease (organic domain).

    -shunning social parasites (moral domain)

    -metaphorical use in abstract thought to label things we don't like (cultural domain).

    More background to the first 2 at:

    Evidence that disgust evolved to protect from risk of disease.

    CURTIS V, AUNGER R and RABIE T Proceedings of the Royal Society Biology Letters Supplement, 2003, 0144.

    Dirt, Disgust, and Disease: Is Hygiene in Our Genes?

    CURTIS V and BIRAN A. Perspectives in Biology and Medicine, 44.1, 2001.

    and a paper about to come out on the 3rd-

    Curtis, V. (2007). "Dirt, Disgust and Disease: a Natural History of Hygiene." Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health 61(8).

    I have pdfs if you want Eric.

  4. Niklaus Pfirsig says:

    I have had many friends through the years that were gay, and I always had a basic agreement with each of them. I would not try to "convert them" and they would not try to convert me. I personally have never understood homosexuality, but I simply don't make it an issue.

    I have witnessed the evil ( by evil I mean anti-life ) effects that homophobia places on society. AIDS, was first written up in scientifc journals in the 1970's and as it became diagnosed more often, it seemed to be predominately affecting Hatians, heroin uses and homosexuals. (As George Carlin put it "Anything with an 'H',, I'm no doing!!")

    A disease with a sense of morality?

    The religions pundits got involved because the disease seemed to primarily infect homosexual men, and the preachers and self righteous politicians were calling AIDS "God's punishment for their evil ways". As a result, for many years, very little funding went into finding out the cause of the disease and how it spread. Serious research began when the disease started infecting children. The research quickly revealed the cause to be a virus, and that the disease could have an incubation time of several years. All the time the moralists had us looking the other way, Millions of people had been infected through blood transfusions, because there was no test to screen for the virus.

    A former coworker of mine was promiscouly gay, and had contracted the disease. He had no doubt passed it on to several of his partners long before he knew he had it. Had he known, he was the kind of person that would have practiced some restraint. He died from a rare brain infection.

    Thanks to the moralists, the world gained an epidemic in exchange for way too many lives.

  5. Erich Vieth says:

    For Jonathan Haidt's lecture on the topic of emotions of moral elevation, click here. http://forum.wgbh.org/wgbh/forum.php?lecture_id=3

  6. gatomjp says:

    Niklaus Pfirsig wrote: "I personally have never understood homosexuality…"

    Would a right handed person say, "I have never understood those LEFT handed people, although I have nothing against them."? Of course not. Yet when it comes to sex, heteros feel that we must distance ourselves with statements like this even while proclaiming our solidarity with "the gays". Sexuality, like so many other human characteristics, is a continuum ranging from very heterosexual to very homosexual and every shade in between. In my mind there is no difference between handedness and sexual preference. Niklaus statement is subtly (and let's hope, unintentionally) demeaning.

    Niklaus reveals his (probably subconcious) homophobia with that statement and by entertaining the very concept that "conversion" from or to homosexuality is even possible! Did anyone actually try to convert you, Nik? And what would have happened if they did?

  7. "steve" says:

    I am an anti-gay bigot.

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