In a temporary triumph over entropy, I happened upon this really interesting paper -- actually, it's a book chapter -- by philosopher Mark Navin:
Navin uses an interpretive, conjectural style of analysis, mining the expression of anti-vaccine themes in popular discourse.
I think he is likely overestimating the extent of public concern about vaccines. As Seth Mnookin has chronicled, there is definitely an "anti-vaccine" subculture, and it is definitely a menace--particularly when adherents of it end up concentrated in local communities. But they are tiny, tiny minority of the population. Childhood vaccination rate have been 90-95% (depending on the vaccine), & exemption from vaccination under 1%, for many many years without any meaningful changes.
But I don't think this feature of the paper is particularly significant or casts doubt on Navin's extraction of the dominant moral/emotional themes that pervade anti-vaccine discourse. Disgust--toward puncturing of the body with needles and the introduction of foreign agents into the blood; toward the aspiration to substitute fabricated and self-consciously managed processes for the ones that "nature" has created for governing human health (including nurturing and protection by mothers)--unmistakably animates the sentiments of the vaccine opponents, historical and contemporary, whom Navin surveys.
There are two cool links between Navin's account & the themes explored in my previous posts. One is the degree to which the evaluative orientation in these disgust sensibilities cannot be reduced in a satisfactory way to a "conservative" ideology or "moral" outlook.
Navin cites some popular works that suggest that anti-vaccine sentiment is correlated with a "left wing" or "liberal" political view. I've never seen any good evidence of this & the idea that something as peculiar -- as boutiquey -- as being anti-vaccine correlates w/ any widespread cultural style strikes me as implausible. But it is clear enough from Navin's account that the distinctive melange of evaluative themes that inform "disgust" with vaccines are not the sorts of things we'd expect to come out of the mouth of a typical political conservative (or typical anything, really).
This feature of the analysis is in tension with the now-popular claim in moral psychology-- associated most conspicuously with Jonathan Haidt and to a lesser degree with Martha Nussbaum -- that "disgust" is a peculiarly or at least disproportionately "conservative" moral sentiment as opposed to a "liberal" one (frankly, I think it is odd to classify people in these ways, given how manifestly non-ideological the average member of the public is!). That was a point I was stressing in my account of the role of disgust in aversion to guns (and maybe drones, too!).
The second interesting element of Navin's account is the relationship between disgust and perceptions of harm. Navin notes that in fact those disgusted by vaccines inevitably do put primary emphasis on the argument that vaccines are inimical to human health. They rely on "evidence" to make out their claim. But almost certainly what makes them see harm in vaccines -- what guides them selectively to credit and discredit evidence that vaccines poison humans and weaken rather than bolster immunity -- is their disgust with the cultural meaning of vaccines.
This point, too, I think is in tension with the contemporary moral psychology view that sees "liberals" as concerned with "harm" as opposed to "purity," "sanctity" etc.
The alternative position -- the one I argued for in my previous posts -- is that the moral sensibilities of "liberals" are guided by disgust every bit as just as much those of "conservatives," who are every bit as much as focused, consciously speaking, on "harm" as liberals are. Both see harm in what disgusts them -- and then seek regulation of such behavior or such activities as a form of harm prevention. What distinguishes "liberals" and "conservatives" is only what they find disgusting, a matter that reflects their adherence to opposing cultural norms.
Although the people Navin are describing aren't really either "liberals" or "conservatives" -- and in fact don't subscribe to cultural norms that are very widespread at all in contemporary American society -- his account supports the claim that disgust is in fact a universal moral sentiment, and one that universally informs perceptions of harm.
Cool paper -- or book chapter! Indeed, I'm eager to find & read the rest of the manuscript.
Larry had an interesting response (as always). Since my reply--on how to think about emotions in general and disgust in particular in relation to norms and moral evaluation (something that is analytically but not psychologically distinct from the perception of risk!) -- ran on & on & on (as always) I thought I'd make it a "follow-up."
My position is based based on sources too numerous to specify but include, prominently, Aristotle; A. Smith; M. Dougalas; W. Miller; M. Nussbaum; A. Damassio, & C. Brutananadilewski:
A. Emotions are a form of sense perception that registers the existence of external contingencies that can either advance or threaten an agent's good.
B. Emotions are uniquely suited to this function. That is, without them -- or in a state in which they are impaired -- an agent is disabled in a manner that is likely to have catastrophic consequences for him or her.
C. Among the objects that emotions enable an agent to apprehend are contingencies that warrant moral appraisals consistent with the relationship of those contingencies to the agent's good. Accordingly, emotions that are impaired, or that are simply not trained or calibrated appropriately, diminish an agent's moral acuity-- to his or her detriment & from the point of view of that agent him- or herself.
D. Every emotion--from anger to hope, from contempt to admiration, from hatred to love, from resentment to compassion--performs this perceptive function.
E. The sorts of appraisals that emotions so understood make will be shaped by cultural norms and will thus vary across place and time. Within place, too, across groups in societies that are culturally pluralistic, as are liberal democratic societies.
F. Like any other faculty of perception, the affective one that emotions comprise can err. And for all sorts of reasons. It is actually a logical fallacy to think that b/c they can be shown to err they are therefore "unreliable" or opposed to reason etc. (Does the phenomeon of an optical illusion mean sight is not reliable? I put your hand in a cauldron of hot water & show that thereafter you perceive a room-temperature object to be cold when you pick it up; does that mean that your sensory perception of tempeature is "irrational"?)
G. It's possible that particular emotions are unconnected to moral appraisals or are connected to moral appraisals that an agent who subscribes to a particular conception of the good would categorically repudiate. This is Nussbaum's position on disgust, as I understand it. But I think she is wrong.
H. Similarly it is possible that "disgust" has a contribution to make only to moral appraisals that cohere with a distinctively "conservative" moral outlook. That is Haidt's position, as I read him. I believe strongly that this is not so.
I admit that I find Haidt's position hard to pin down. Is he saying disgust is an element of a distincitively conservative style of moral assessment that is not concerned with "harm"? Or that disgust figures in motivated reasoning of "harm" but only in conservatives? Is he saying that "liberals" genuinely rely only on perceptions of "harm" in their moral assessments? Or are their perceptions of "harm" also influenced by motivated reasoning? And if so-- motivated reasoning that is responsive to what? Presumably, in his view, not disgust; but something other than harm-- for it is incoherent to say that liberals' perceptions of harm are motivated by their moral commitment to preventing harm. So what is the non-harm related value that motivates liberals' moral judgments? Why would we conclude that it isn't a form of disgust toward a way of life they abhor, since that is clearly what seems to be going on in their reactions, e.g., to guns?
No doubt I'm confused on these matters b/c I haven't thought as hard about what Haidt is saying as I should have. The likelihood that I'm confused seems higher to me than the likelihood that so many thoughtful people who do claim to understand his position are. Maybe one of them will comment -- or even write a guest post-- and help to clarify things for me.
I don't read Navin to be saying that disgust with vaccines is leftist or leftish. He is saying that it isn't conservative (an easy point to make given how shallow the concept of "conservative" is in the conventional understanding of"liberal"-"conservative" ideology & how little it necessarily has to do with mass opinion, which is not not coherently partisan). It is connected to some sort of view that sees nature as infused with normative authority that it is wrong to defy or try to escape from. Surely we can see "left" and "right" versions of this in political life.
But in any case, I think we need more evidence of what the "cultural" norms are that inform disgust with vaccines (if in fact disgust is contributing to what those who fear them see). Navin's is a form of evidence -- and one more worthy of being assigned weight than that supplied by people who really haven't made any observations at all besides the ones that maybe randomly occur to them as they survey the tiny sliver of the world they are privy too (at least some journalists and popular writers who assert that there is a correlation between vaccine risk perception and "liberalism" are in that category, I'd say). But it would be good to supplement it w/ forms of empirical proof that are more disciplined, even if less rich. Anything we learn from such methods, moreover, should be trusted only when it is corroborated by forms of analysis akin to Navin's -- and by ethnographic and other richer types of empirical observation. Convergent validity is the most reliable guide.