As the 14 billion regular readers of this blog know, I went through a period where I was obsessed with disgusting things. Not incest or coprophagia, or any of that mundane stuff but rather things like the "Crickett," the miniaturized but fully functional .22 rifle that is marketed under the logo "My first rilfe!," and that is intended to be purchased by parents for preadolsecent children (they come in a variety of styles featuring child-attractive motifs, like pink-colored laminated stocks meant to appeal to young girls) in order to introduce them to the wonders of a cultural style in which guns are symbols of shared commitments and also instruments or tools that enable various sorts of role-specific behavior that transmit and propagate commitment to that style.... People who harbor an opposing style say they are disgusted by the Crickett--and I see (feel) where they are coming from. That place, moreover, is very remote from "conservative" political ideology or a "conservative" moral style, which Jonathan Haidt and others have identified in extremely important and appropriately influential work as uniquely (or at least disproportionately) associated with the use of "disgust" as a moral sensibility. Rather, they seem like the people who subscribe to the "liberal" moral style that, in the work of Haidt and others, makes no or at least less use of disgust as a form of moral appraisal and instead relies on perceptions of harm. The reaction to the Crickett--that it and the way of life in which it figures are disgusting (a reaction widely expressed in the aftermath of the widely covered tragic accidental shooting of a two-year old Kentucky girl by her Crickett-toting five-year old brother), seemed like evidence to me for a different position, one I associate with Mary Douglas and William Miller, who view disgust as a universal moral sensibility that adherents to diverse cultural systems across place and time make use of to focus their perception of the objects and behavior characteristic of opposing styles; and to motivate their denunciation of them, in terms that are strikingly illiberal in the sense of being disconnected to harm, which is imputed to behavior that offends the cultural norms of those experiencing this reaction...
Readers also know that one of my favorite strategies for advancing my own knowledge and that of others is to recklessly offer my own conjectures on matters such as this as a way of luring/provoking those who know more to respond & correct the myriad mistakes they see in my ruminations! Well, I've succeed once again!
Below is an amazingly thoughtful & penetrating response from Yoel Inbar. Inbar is a social psychologist whose work on disgust, which is broadly in alignment with the account I attributed to Haidt, is of tremendous quality and importance and central to ongoing scholarly discussion of the role of disgust in informing moral and related sensibilities. He takes issue with me, of course! I am much smarter as a result of reading and thinking about his essay & offer it to my loyal readers so that they can enjoy the same benefit!
Is Disgust a Uniquely "Conservative" Moral Emotion?
Among politically liberal academics, the emotion of disgust has an unsavory reputation. The philosopher Martha Nussbaum has argued that disgust is wielded by privileged social groups to marginalize and dehumanize those of lower status, and indeed research has found that the disgust-prone are more negative towards immigrants, foreigners, and "social deviants." Furthermore, disgust seems to have a relationship with political conservatism: self-described political conservatives are more easily disgusted, and states where people are on average more disgust sensitive were (all else equal) more likely to go for McCain over Obama in the 2008 U.S. presidential election. A tempting conclusion for liberals might be that disgust is an irrational, immoral, and politically suspect emotion, at least when it is applied to morality.
Yet the view that disgust as a moral emotion is only important to political conservatives has a problem: on its face, it seems obviously wrong. As Dan Kahan pointed out on this blog, political liberals often use the word "disgust" when talking about things they find immoral: liberals say they are disgusted by multi-million-dollar Wall Street bonuses, gun manufacturers who make weapons for 10-year-olds, racism, and lots of other things. Doesn't this mean that liberals are just as likely as conservatives to base their moral judgments on disgust? Perhaps (liberal) researchers are simply more likely to label moral positions that they disagree with as disgust-based (and therefore, by implication, irrational) while giving positions they agree with a free pass.
Although political bias in social psychology is a real problem, this objection misses a crucial difference between liberals and conservatives, namely what they find morally objectionable. There are some behaviors that are at least in theory harmless, but (for a lack of a better word) gross. For example, consider a man who, every Saturday, buys a whole chicken at the supermarket, masturbates into it, cooks it, and eats it for dinner (this wonderful and by now famous story was invented by Jon Haidt). Almost everyone finds this disgusting. However, most liberals will concede that despite being disgusting, having sex with a chicken and consuming it is not morally wrong, because no one is harmed (after all, the chicken is already dead). Many conservatives (although by no means all) will say that despite being harmless, this behavior is wrong--because it is disgusting. In fact, conservatives are more likely than liberals to say that many different kinds of disgusting-but-harmless behaviors are morally wrong. Unusual habits regarding food, hygiene, and (especially) sex are often seen by conservatives as immoral regardless of whether they directly harm anyone. And the emotion that people feel when contemplating these kinds of behaviors (which Haidt and his colleagues have called purity violations) is disgust. Certainly Western liberals may also feel disgusted when considering these behaviors, but they are often reluctant to call them immoral unless they can point to a victim--to someone who is directly harmed.
Of course, many people who morally object to (for example) certain kinds of sex between consenting adults claim that their objection is motivated by the putative harm caused by the behavior, not by the observer's queasy feelings. In such a case, how are we to know whether beliefs about harm caused the moral conviction, or whether they are merely post-hoc rationalizations of a (disgust-based) moral intuition? This is a difficult question, but there are several good reasons to think the latter answer is right: 1) When Jon Haidt and his collaborator, Matthew Hersh, asked liberals and conservatives to defend their views about the moral permissibility of anal sex between two men, conservatives but not liberals were likely to defend their beliefs even when they admitted they could not give (harm-based) justifications for them (a phenomenon Haidt has called moral dumbfounding); 2) in the same study, judgments of moral permissibility were statistically predicted by subjects' self-reported emotional reactions to imagining the acts in question, and not by their judgments of their harmfulness; 3) when people are asked directly about how much different considerations are relevant to deciding whether something is right or wrong, conservatives rate "whether someone violated standards of purity and decency" and "whether or not someone did something disgusting" as more morally relevant than do liberals.
What, then, of liberals who say they're disgusted by gun manufacturers or Goldman Sachs? Well, it turns out that "disgust" is a tricky term, at least in English--many laypeople use "disgusted" in a metaphorical sense, to mean "angry." As David Pizarro and I recently argued with one or two exceptions there's very little evidence that people are physically disgusted by immoral behavior that doesn't involve food, cleanliness, or sex. In fact, recent research by Roberto Gutierrez, Roger Giner-Sorolla, and Milica Vasiljevic suggests that people use the word "disgust" to mean physically disgusted when judging unusual sexual or dietary practices, but use the same word to mean something much closer to "angry" when judging instances of deceit or exploitation. Of course, this is an area that's actively being researched at the moment, and this may change, but the balance of evidence so far suggests that when people use "disgust" to refer to their reactions to unfairness, exploitation, or violations of someone's rights, they are doing so metaphorically, not literally.
This is not to say that disgust qua disgust plays no role in liberals' moral judgments. For example, consider another story invented by Jon Haidt: Mark and Julie are siblings who are vacationing together in the south of France. One night, they decide that it would be fun and interesting if they tried making love. Julie is on birth control, but just to be safe Mark also uses a condom. They both enjoy the experience, but they decide not to do it again and to keep it a special secret between the two of them. Was this morally wrong? Here, liberals and conservatives seem equally likely to say "yes"--and equally unable to back up those judgments with harm-based justifications. When Jon Haidt and Matthew Hersh asked their undergraduate subjects about the moral permissibility of incest, they found that liberals were just as likely as conservatives to reject it, and just as likely to become morally dumbfounded when attempting to defend their judgments. For both liberals and conservatives, visceral disgust sometimes leads to moral revulsion, but this seems to be more common for conservatives. This is likely to be for two reasons: 1) conservatives are more readily disgusted in general; and 2) conservatives seem to be more comfortable pointing to feelings of disgust as a justification for moral beliefs (for example, conservative bioethicist Leon Kass's well-known argument for the "wisdom of repugnance."
Does this mean that liberals are better moral decision-makers than conservatives? After all, if conservatives base more of their moral judgments on disgust, an unreasoned emotion, and liberals base more of their moral judgments on whether someone was harmed or treated unfairly, doesn't this mean that liberals are more careful, thoughtful, and reasoned in their moral judgments? The answer is unambiguously no. There is no evidence that liberals are any less likely to base their moral judgments on (unreasoned) intuitions than conservatives, although liberals and conservatives do often rely on different moral intuitions. But what moral intuitions underlie the moral judgments of political liberals, and why these intuitions can be just as fallible as those of conservatives, are questions big enough to leave for a separate post.