Ordinary disgust taints moral judgments

July 17, 2008 | By | 4 Replies More

I’ve written before about the work of Jonathan Haidt (pronounced “height”). He is a psychologist who has taken an experimental approach to investigating morality. I was highly impressed by Haidt’s analysis of conservative versus liberal versus of morality, for instance. In his previous work, Haidt determined that disgust played a significant role in the moral judgments of conservatives, but not so much for liberals. This result, based upon numerous surveys, sheds light on moral disputes regarding many things, including homosexuality.

Most liberals have no personal interest in homosexual sex, and many of them are disgusted by the thought of engaging in such an act. The liberal’s disgust regarding a particular type of sexual act does not constitute any basis for a moral judgment (in a liberal). For many conservatives, however, the disgust experienced for any thought that they might personally engage in a homosexual act often does provide the basis for a wide-ranging moral judgment against all persons engaging in any homosexual acts. The Science article suggests that many liberals could better understand how disgust might play into a moral judgment by considering their own moral judgments, including those related to the proper way of processing food, the proper type of food to eat or the disgust they might experience regarding symbolic issues.

The May 9, 2008 edition of Science reports that Haidt has taken his research on disgust and morality one step further (online access to this article is limited to subscribers). The article, entitled “The Roots of Morality,” describes Haidt’s experiments and results:

A team of psychologists recently asked dozens of college students to consider several morally charged situations. In one, a friend lies on his resume to land a job; in another, survivors of a plane crash consider cannibalizing an injured boy to avoid starvation. Students who pondered these hypothetical scenarios while sitting at a filthy desk with sticky stains and a chewed up pen rated them as more immoral than did students who sat at a pristine desk. In another version of the experiment, a nearby trash can doused with novelty Bart spray had a similar effect. The findings, in press at Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, demonstrate that emotions such as disgust exert a powerful influence on moral judgments, even when they are triggered by something unrelated to the moral issue, says study co-author Jonathan Haidt. . .”

This pithy article in Science describes Haidt’s position that people rely on their gut reactions to inform them of the morality of a situation, relying on their reasoning skills only after-the-fact. This is “not unlike an art museum visitor who is struck by the beauty of a painting but struggles to explain why.”

In making moral judgments, then, there seems to be a quick and dirty road to judgment based upon gut feelings as well as a slowly and carefully reasoned road. This is not surprising in light of my own real-life experience with moral judgments (regarding both my own judgments and watching the judgments of others).

Nor is it unusual that the brain might have a quick and dirty method and also a more carefully considered (but slower) method for getting the job done. For instance, Joseph LeDoux has demonstrated that there is a quick and dirty neural pathway for experiencing human emotion as well as a more deliberate and intellectualized pathway. These normally work in tandem, but not always.

Similarly, perception appears to be mediated by multiple systems. In The Visual Brain in Action, Milner and Goodale argue that motor neural systems that underlie visually guided action (such as reaching) are distinct from conscious experiences associated with perception (such as recognition and categorization). [I was made aware of this work by Milner and Goodale by Andy Clark’s introduction to cognitive science, entitled Mindware (2001)].

Haidt’s work, described in the above-described article in Science, provides further evidence that the brain is actually a big bag of tricks, rather than anything homogenous. Or, as Steven Pinker has put it, “The mind is not a single organ but a system of organs.”


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Category: Good and Evil, Psychology Cognition

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 (4)

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  1. Erika Price says:

    It strikes me as almost tragic that so many people go through life with a sense of moral outrage over things that merely squick them out. Because there is such a "quick and dirty pathway" from disgust to emotion, people don't even realize that the process is happening. When I think of the effort that moral ideologues place into abolishing the "immoral" things that are simply gross, not wrong, I almost feel sympathy for them and their wasted time.

    But revealing this information to such a person would do no good, I suspect. I can think of no effective way to tell a homophobe "Well, you see, you only think gays are immoral because male-male anal sex weirds you out." Once that moral framework has been laid, it is nigh impossible to excavate. What a waste!

    Does this disgust-morality link help explain moral outrage at drug use and extreme poverty, too? Do many of us "hate" homeless people because they often have poor hygiene? I see myriad possible connections between the things that disgrace us and the things that disgust us.

  2. Erich Vieth says:

    Erika: I also wonder just how many of our "moral" judgments are fueled (seemingly unnecessarily) by gut level disgust, even unconscious disgust. Yes, the sick and the homeless and certainly yes, the POOR. Many people find these groups viscerally repulsive because they are often dirty and smelly–and they don't have lots of nice THINGS like WE do. I suspect that personal unease ramps up into a full blown "moral judgment" in many cases. And what about those immigrants? Many people are disgusted that immigrants are "invading," which leads so effortlessly to the conclusion that they are morally wrong to do so.

    Further, if you consider that we are a thoroughly symbolic species, there is really no end to this mischief. Politics is a realm where we might as well intentionally conflate a new term: immoral/disgusting. It's all the same thing to many people. Just watch their faces when they talk about something they find to be "immoral." For instance, take a look at this video of neocon commentator Thomas Friedman (I found that I was a bit "disgusted" at his disgust).

    It all starts with the failure to recognize a simple early (often false) move: What disgusts me is therefore immoral (meaning that it's immoral for all people in all places).

    I've posted before on how early and seemingly minor intellectual moves can grow into large and grotesque proportions (and sometimes into wonderful things). The power of seemingly slight early intellectual moves!

    Today's quote of the day from The Quotations Page is apropos:

    Politics, n. Strife of interests masquerading as a contest of principles.

    Ambrose Bierce (1842 – 1914), The Devil's Dictionary

  3. Dan Klarmann says:

    Reminds me of an old joke.

    The small town parents go to visit with their gay son in the big city. They have come to accept his partner, but it still confuses them. On the first evening, the father takes his son aside, and asks him point blank, "What exactly do you two do, in the bedroom?"

    The son looks his dad in the eye and says, "You know those things that you almost never get mom to do with you? That's what we do."

  4. Erich Vieth says:

    More connection between visceral disgust and moral disgust:

    The research is being published in Science on February 27, 2009.

    In the study, the scientists examined facial movements when participants tasted unpleasant liquids and looked at photographs of disgusting objects such as dirty toilets or injuries. They compared these to their facial movements when they were subjected to unfair treatment in a laboratory game. The U of T team found that people make similar facial movements in response to both primitive forms of disgust and moral disgust . . .

    “Surprisingly, our sophisticated moral sense of what is right and wrong may develop from a newborn’s innate preference for what tastes good and bad, what is potentially nutritious versus poisonous.”

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