Sat, Jul 24, 2004 - Page 9 News List

To urgh is human

Disgust is an adaptation for survival, but does it have any value in making moral and political judgments?

By Paul Bloom  /  THE GUARDIAN , New Haven, Connecticut

ILLUSTRATION MOUNTAIN PEOPLE

What, precisely, is so bad about sex between adult siblings, bestiality, and the eating of corpses? Most people insist such acts are morally wrong, but when psychologists ask why, the answers make little sense. For instance, people often say incestuous sex is immoral because it runs the risk of begetting a deformed child, but if this was their real reason, they should be happy if the siblings were to use birth control -- and most people are not. One finds what the social psychologist Jonathan Haidt called "moral dumbfounding," a gut feeling that something is wrong combined with an inability to explain why.

Haidt suggests we are dumbfounded because, despite what we might say to others and perhaps believe ourselves, our moral responses are not based on reason. They are instead rooted in revulsion: incest, bestiality and cannibalism disgust us, and our disgust gives rise to moral outrage.

Some see disgust as a reliable moral guide. Leon Kass, chairman of the US president's commission on bioethics, wrote an article in 1997 called "The Wisdom of Repugnance," in which he concedes that this revulsion is "not an argument," but then goes on to argue: "In some crucial cases, however, it is the emotional expression of deep wisdom, beyond wisdom's power completely to articulate it."

This conclusion has practical implications: Kass argues that the idea of human cloning is disgusting, and he sees this as good reason to ban it. Some from both sides of the political spectrum would agree.

Disgust has humble origins. At root, it is a biological adaptation, warding us away from ingesting certain substances that could make us sick. This is why feces, vomit, urine and rotten meat are universally disgusting; they contain harmful toxins. We react strongly to the idea of touching such substances and find the notion of eating them worse. This Darwinian perspective also explains why we see disgusting substances as contaminants -- if some food makes even the slightest contact with rotting meat, for instance, it is no longer fit to eat. After all, the micro-organisms that can harm us spread by contact, and so you should not only avoid disgusting things, you should avoid anything that the disgusting things make contact with. For these reasons, the psychologist Steven Pinker has described disgust as "intuitive microbiology."

So some of our disgust is hard-wired. This does not mean babies experience disgust. They are immobile and it would be a cruel trick of evolution to have them lie in perpetual self-loathing, unable to escape their revolting bodily wastes. But when disgust first emerges in young children, it is a consequence of brain maturation, not early experience or cultural teaching.

Children are prepared to do some learning, because while some things are universally dangerous, others vary according to the environment. This is particularly the case for animal flesh, and so in the first few years of life, children monitor what adults around them eat and establish the boundaries of acceptable (and hence non-disgusting) foods. By the time one is an adult the disgust reactions are fairly locked in, and it is difficult for most adults to try new foods, particularly new meats. (Most readers of this piece, for instance, would be queasy at the idea of eating grubs, cockroaches or dogs.)

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