Disgust, Moral Disgust, and Morality

In: Journal of Moral Philosophy
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  • 1 1Department of Philosophy, The College of William and Mary Williamsburg, va, USA, jngert@wm.edu

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This paper calls into question the idea that moral disgust is usefully regarded as a form of genuine disgust. This hypothesis is questionable even if, as some have argued, the spread of moral norms through a community makes use of signaling mechanisms that are central to core disgust. The signaling system is just one part of disgust, and may well be completely separable from it. Moreover, there is plausibly a significant difference between the cognitive scientist’s concept of an emotion and the everyday notion of that emotion. Finally, even if, as this paper contests, some form of disgust were directly elicited by the moral wrongness of certain kinds of behavior, research on the socio-moral elicitors of the disgust mechanism would still be unlikely to shed much direct light on the nature or content of morality.

  • 2

    Leon Kass, ‘The Wisdom of Repugnance: Why We Should Ban the Cloning of Humans’, New Republic 216 (1997), pp. 17–26; Michael Hauskeller, ‘Moral Disgust’, Ethical Perspectives: Journal of the European Ethics Network 13:4 (2006), pp. 571–602.

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  • 4

    Christopher Knapp, ‘De-moralizing Disgustingness’, Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 66:2 (2003), pp. 253–278.

  • 5

    Joshua Gert, ‘Neo-sentimentalism and Disgust’, The Journal of Value Inquiry, 39:3–4 (2005), pp. 345–352.

  • 9

    Ibid, pp. 128–132.

  • 10

    Ibid, p. 132.

  • 12

    Michael L. Anderson, ‘Massive Redeployment, Exaptation, and the Functional Integration of Cognitive Operations’, Synthese 159 (2007), pp. 329–345.

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  • 13

    Kelly, Yuck, pp. 131–2.

  • 15

    Kelly, Yuck, p. 134, my emphasis.

  • 17

    Kelly, Yuck, pp. 65–6. Robert Levenson, Paul Ekman and Wallace Friesen, ‘Voluntary Facial Action Generates Emotion-Specific Autonomic Nervous System Activity’, Psychophysiology 27 (1990), pp. 363–384.

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  • 18

    Kelly, Yuck, p. 130.

  • 19

    Compare Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations (New York: Macmillan, 1953), p. 174.

  • 21

    Timothy Goldsmith, ‘What Birds See’, Scientific American 295 (2006), pp. 68–75 at p. 72. Compare H.A Chapman, D.A. Kim, J.M. Susskind and A.K. Anderson, ‘In Bad Taste: Evidence for the Oral Origins of Moral Disgust’, Science 323 (2009), pp. 1222–1226 at p. 1222: ‘We found that all three states evoked activation of the levator labii muscle region of the face, characteristic of an oral-nasal rejection response. These results suggest that immorality elicits the same disgust as disease vectors and bad tastes’. This is a conflation of (1) and (2).

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  • 22

    Kelly, Yuck, pp. 66.

  • 24

    Ibid, p. 874.

  • 25

    Paul Bloom, Descartes’ Baby, (New York: Basic Books, 2004) at pp. 172–3.

  • 26

    Joshua Gert, Normative Bedrock: Response-Dependence, Rationality, and Reasons (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012), chapter 1, and Huw Price. Naturalism Without Mirrors (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011), chapters 2, 9 and 12, present the kind of general pragmatist semantic view I favor. Such a view need not deny that ‘water’ refers to H2O, or that it does so in virtue of a story of the sort Saul Kripke tells in Naming and Necessity (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1980). But it need not model all reference in the same way.

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  • 27

    Edward Royzman and John Sabini, ‘Something It Takes to Be an Emotion: The Interesting Case of Disgust’, Journal for the Theory of Social Behaviour 31 (2001), pp. 29–59 at p. 47.

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  • 28

    Simpson et al., ‘Is Disgust a Homogeneous Emotion?’, p. 39, also highlights some other observable differences: socio-moral disgust intensifies over time, while “core” disgust weakens. Also, general sensitivity to “core” elicitors does not predict sensitivity to socio-moral elicitors.

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  • 30

    Royzman and Kurzban, ‘Minding the Metaphor’, p. 270, describe this as the distinction between morally induced dyspepsia, and moral dyspepsia proper.

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