Disgust Can Be Morally Valuable

The disgust that we feel at the sight of blood or the taste of spoiled milk is familiar. And while this disgust is unpleasant to experience, it’s generally thought to be beneficial—an emotional response that helps protect us against the pathogens that may lurk in what we’re repulsed by.

But assessing the value of the disgust that we feel about moral matters is a more complicated affair. While disgust of this sort seems valuable when we feel it toward things like racism or those who take advantage of the elderly, it’s problematic when experienced toward minorities or the MAGA crowd. So, what are we to make of this?

On this question, philosophers and public intellectuals are divided: some heap praise, others scorn, on the idea that disgust is morally valuable. For the advocates, disgust is a powerful and malleable emotion, one that we can shape in order to guard ourselves against morally polluting behavior: hypocrisy, betrayal, cruelty and the like. Skeptics, by contrast, maintain that disgust is a misleading and troublingly rigid response. As they see it, we’re too easily disgusted by the morally innocuous and too powerless to keep ourselves from demonizing those we’re disgusted by.

Yet, until recently, few have noticed that these assessments of disgust’s moral value turn on empirical questions about what we can do to shape disgust for the better. Moreover, when we look at what recent research in cognitive science tell us about this question—can we cultivate disgust?—we see that both sides are mistaken. We can’t actually cultivate disgust in the ways that its advocates presume. That said, and in contrast with the skeptics’ assessment, we can improve our ability to control when and how we feel our disgust.

This difference between cultivating and controlling disgust is subtle but important. And once we recognize it, we’re forced to rethink not only our assessments of disgust’s moral value but also more fundamental questions about what becoming a more virtuous person involves.

Let’s start by considering disgust’s virtues. Not only do we tend to experience disgust toward moral wrongs like hypocrisy and exploitation, but the shunning and social excluding that disgust brings seems a fitting response to those who pollute the moral fabric in these ways. Moreover, in the face of worries about morally problematic disgust—disgust felt at the wrong time or in the wrong way—advocates respond that it’s an emotion we can substantively change for the better.

On this front, disgust’s advocates point to exposure and habituation; just like I might overcome the disgust I feel about exotic foods by trying them, I can overcome the disgust I feel about same-sex marriage by spending more time with gay couples. Moreover, work in psychology appears to support this picture. Medical school students, for instance, lose their disgust about touching dead bodies after a few months of dissecting corpses, and new mothers quickly become less disgusted by the smell of soiled diapers.

But these findings may be deceptive. For starters, when we look more closely at the results of the diaper experiment, we see that a mother’s reduced disgust sensitivity is most pronounced with regard to her own baby’s diapers, and additional research indicates that mothers have a general preference for the smell of their own children. This combination suggests, contra the disgust advocates, that a mother’s disgust is not being eliminated. Rather, her disgust at the soiled diapers is still there; it’s just being masked by the positive feelings that she’s getting from the smell of her newborn. Similarly, when we look carefully at the cadaver study, we see that while the disgust of medical students toward touching the cold bodies of the dissection lab is reduced with exposure, the disgust they feel toward touching the warm bodies of the recently deceased remained unchanged.

All this may seem like fodder for the skeptic’s claim that disgust is morally problematic; after all, it seems there’s little we can do to shape our disgust for the better. But that would be too quick.

While there may not be much we can do to substantively change what we’re disgusted by, we may be able to improve our ability to control when and how we feel our disgust. More specifically, even if disgust itself is too rigid to be changed, it appears there are other psychological mechanisms associated with disgust—things like our attentional systems and cognitive processing routines—that are more malleable. So, focusing on these mechanisms may offer a better strategy for addressing morally problematic disgust.

We get a hint of this in the diaper experiment, where it appears that mothers’ disgust responses are canceled out by the positive feelings they experience through mother-child bonding processes. And this picture finds further support in research highlighting the effectiveness of “implementation intentions” for our ability to control problematic disgust.

At a gloss, implementation intentions are the if-then rules that guide our actions. Importantly, strategies that appeal to them aren’t trying to directly change a person’s disgust. Rather, they’re aiming to develop people’s (nondisgust) attentional capacities; allowing them to better recognize situations where disgust response may misfire, so that they can better control the resulting disgust. For instance, someone disgusted by the sight of blood might adopt an implementation intention like “If I see blood, I’ll adopt the perspective of a physician,” or “If I see blood, I’ll stay calm and relaxed,” in order to moderate both their assessment of how disgusting the blood is and their subsequent reactions to it.

While researchers have yet to investigate the effectiveness of implementation intentions as correctives for morally problematic disgust, multiple studies have found the technique effective as a way of combating excessive disgust experienced in nonmoral situations (e.g., seeing bodily fluids).

So where does all of this leave us regarding the question of disgust’s moral value? For starters, we can see that advocates are right that disgust is a morally powerful response to hypocrites, cheaters and the like; without disgust, we’d lack an important way of responding to those who take advantage of others. But advocates are wrong in thinking disgust is a malleable emotion that we can substantively change for the better. In the other direction, we also see that skeptics overstate their concerns: though we cannot substantively change morally problematic disgust, we can learn to effectively control it through the use of implementation intentions.

To see what this might look like, consider someone who is strongly disgusted by members of a particular minority group (let’s call that group the “Gs”). Such an individual would be well-served to adopt implementation intentions aimed at helping him control his disgust—something like, “If I see Gs, I’ll adopt the perspective of Martin Luther King, Jr.” or “If I see Gs, I’ll relax and be friendly.” As suggested above, deploying such a strategy should allow them to better recognize situations where their disgust response may misfire, so that they can engage implementation intentions that will help them control their reaction.

But there may be a further lesson here. The dominant philosophical view of moral development, one that has roots in Aristotle, sees becoming virtuous as a process whereby one transforms problematic emotions; the cowardly person’s fear is transformed into the courageous person’s emotional attunement to danger. But looking closely at the science of disgust reveals that not all emotions are like this: some emotions resist our efforts to substantively change them for the better. So, in these cases, becoming a more virtuous person is not a matter of seeking emotional transformation. Rather, it’s the process by which we improve our emotional self-awareness and self-control.

This is an opinion and analysis article.

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