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Is Disgust a Uniquely "Conservative" Moral Emotion?

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?

Yoel Inbar

Yoel Inbar (left)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.

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Reader Comments (16)

A recent discussion in the comments of my own blog (linked above) hit on the purity/pollution connexion among liberals. "Unnatural" is another one we arrived at; one sees this objection invoked against genetically modified organisms, chemical pesticides, and nuclear power, among other liberal bêtes noires, with much the same air of disgust that conservatives use when they apply it to, e.g., gay sex.

Certainly the potential for environmental harm exists with the three unnatural-to-liberals examples I gave above, while homosexual activity is in no wise any more or less harmful than heterosexual activity. But my experience, after a couple of years of involvement with the DIYbio -- aka "biohacking" -- community has been that there is a bifurcation among liberals, oriented along the precautionary principle. I have had many, many pointless conversations with liberals who hold up the precautionary principle as their rationale for why synthetic biology must not be allowed -- but who cannot, even when asked directly, identify what would be an acceptable burden of proof with respect to safety. No amount of risk is acceptable, despite the fact that they accept certain risks every day, e.g., dying in a traffic accident every time they drive. I have a hard time believing that harm/care is the only axis involved here, especially when liberals who don't invoke the precautionary principle tend to say things like "of course it's unnatural, and so are antibiotics."

July 23, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterMeredith L. Patterson

I think you may be too hard on "unreasoned intuition", if you mean to imply that we should, ideally, always engage in some sort of reasoning. Richard Hare (in "Moral thinking") distinguishes between the intuitive and the critical level of moral thinking, and argues that, most of the time, for most cases in real life (as distinct from fantasy stories dreamed up by philosophers), we do best by reasoning at the intuitive level, but, importantly, using intuitions that themselves can be justified at the critical level. By this account, some liberals (not the ones mentioned in the last comment, by Meredith Patterson) are intuitive utilitarians, because they focus on intuitive judgments about harm (and benefit, which Haidt usually fails to mention). Some of these people came to this view through their own critical moral thinking. Others just grew up with it, because someone else did the thinking for them - a form of moral luck, one might say.

July 24, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJon Baron


Your comment is connected, I think, to a distinction that I actually queried Yoel about in off-line coorespondence (btw, he tells me the unidentified individual in the photo is his frequent collaborator, David Pizzaro).

The identifiecation of "disgust" as "conservative" could reflect two independent positions on how emotions do & ought to figure in moral reasoning.

The first is a "dual process" theory of moral cognition that treats emotions as one of the various sorts of largely intuitive, unconscious affective substitutes for the sorts of reflective assessments that, on this account, *ought* to inform moral judgment. This view sees the reliance of conservatives on "disgust" as of a piece with the (supposed) association between conservativism and a less reflective cogntive style generally. John Jost would likely endorse this view.

The second view sees emotions & related sensibilities as essential to morality. The affective system is a faculty of perception uniquely suited for sizing up the significance of external forces that threaten or promote goods or states of affairs of moral significance. Different "styles" of morality are distinguished, then, by their reliance on different emotions, which reflect the appraisals of goods and states of affairs that are disitnitive of that style.

So if "digust" is conservative, on this 2d account, the reason isn't that conservatism relies more on emtion or intuition than liberalism. Rather, it is that it is connected to goods or states of affairs the advance of which is more reliably advanced by use of "disgust" to guide moral perception. Liberalism would then be understood to be uniquely or disproportionately connected to some other emotion or set of emotions that reliably guide moral perception to assign external contingencies the significance they properly bear relative to a "liberal" appraisal of goods and states of affairs.

This is definitely Nussbaum's account.

Which of these is Haidt's-- I'm not sure. I find him hard to pin down. Sometimes I think he is advancing the first claim, sometimes the second.

I think, from dscussion w/ Yoel & from what he says in his post, that he believes in the 2d position--at least as a descriptive matter. Which is to say, I don't know if he, like Nussbaum, belives that it is morally inappropriate to use disgust as opposed to other emotions to apprais goods and states of affairs; but I think he does see liberals as *using* emotions and other intuitive, perceptive forms of judgment, and not just reflective types of judgment, in moral reasoning.

But maybe he should clarify, in response to your comment, whether he thinks, normatively, it is approppriate for anyone ("liberals" or "conservatives") to be relying on emotion & intuition rather than reflection in moral reasoning. (If he says no, then I think he will reveal himself to share Joshua Greene's position on "dual process rasoning" in moral judgment.)

As for me, I woudl put myself in the 2d camp insofar as emotions would be viewed as an indispensable form of perception for moral reasoning. But I think I am still inclined to reject the view that "disgust" figures in the exercise of the moral perceive faculty only of conservatives & not liberals. I think I still find Miller & Mary Douglas persuasivie here: disgust is a universal moral sentiment that is calibrated with reference to the norms that define the particular cultural outlook of the person experiencing it. @Meridith's comment on the "disgust" that "liberals" feel toward denigration of the environment fits Douglas & Wildavsky's account of the egalitarian communtarian cultural style in in Risk & Culture.

BTW, this exchange is connecting this post to the series of posts on "dual process" reasoning, the 2d of which will be posted presently...

July 24, 2013 | Unregistered Commenterdmk38

Hi Meredith, Jon, Dan,
Thank you all for your thoughtful comments. Dan is right that descriptively, I agree with Nussbaum--I think liberals and conservatives are more-or-less equally likely to make moral judgments intuitively, but that they often rely on different intuitions. (I think this is Haidt's position as well, although I haven't read his newest book.)

Prescriptively, I don't know. I feel unqualified to really say anything about that, other than that for everday moral judments, asking people to do the sort of reasoned analysis a philosopher might is unrealistic.

I do wonder whether there are many people (besides Jon Baron) who have utilitarian moral intuitions. Like Meredith, I've noticed that much of the liberal moral discourse about things like nuclear power, biotech, 3rd world manufacturing, etc. seems based on whether things *feel* bad or harmful not on any sort of cost-benefit thinking (even heuristic or intuitive). But as far as I know there's little good research on liberal moral intuitions (with the exception of some of Dan's work, although he probably wouldn't want me to characterize it that way). I assume that's because most (liberal) researchers see these intuitions as obviously right and therefore not in need of explanation.

July 24, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterYoel Inbar

@Yoel et al.

When I grope the elephant -- or donkey -- it always tells me something broadly speaking "utilitarian." Whether nuclear power, gay & lesbian parenting, gun control, climate change: always an account about the contribution the activity makes to collective welfare measured in whataever metric seems to fit. So if I were inclined to take things at face value, I'd condluce that elephants 7 donkeys are all utilitiarain. But why does the elephant find everyting the donkey thinks is welfare promoting to be welfare diminishing, not to mention disgusting? They are also good Liberal animals -- both the donkey & the elephant; that is, they both say the reason they want to regulate the behavior the other claims is welfare enhancing is not that they find it disgusting (although they do; or they say things like that, but calling something 'disgusting' is perhaps just a way to say they are angry or disapprove) but rather that the behavior is just so godawful harmful-- as any reasonable person can see! These are very peculiar & fascinating animals. Maybe the bear in the picture w/ Yoel could tell us what's going on.

July 24, 2013 | Registered CommenterDan Kahan

As before, this topic seems rife with ambiguity and imprecision, but Yoel here raises the very good question question of what "disgust" actually means in a moral context. And I think he's right that, among self-defined liberals at least, it often refers to a kind of anger rather than the more visceral notion of actual revulsion. In this sense, we can see announcing one's disgust at some kind of conduct or attitude as a form of moral display, a way not just of showing one's alignment with one's particular cultural group but of adopting an aggressively hostile stance toward alternate cultural groupings. It's a more conscious or deliberate deployment of emotion, in other words, a way of trying to make use of the force of physical disgust to bolster one's political/cultural views and values. This would explain why we sometimes see people who announce their disgust at racism or homophobia, say, still using racist or homophobic insults in attacking people outside their cultural cognition group.

July 24, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterLarry

Yoel -

I am predisposed to believe that liberals and conservatives are not fundamentally different - so I think your work is quite interesting (and I am motivated to find an explanation for it that doesn't force me to junk my beliefs)....

So I am wondering about this comment from your article that you linked:

Moreover, other factors, such as geographical location, doubtless exert a strong influence on political attitudes * a resident of Utah is far more likely to be conservative than a resident of Massachusetts, but it seems unlikely that Utah residents are dramatically more disgust-sensitive than Massachusetts residents.

I don't understand this. If you are linking political ideology to a fundamental attribute such as disgust-sensitivity, then why would you disassociate geographical location from that phenomenon if it also correlates with political ideology? I mean yes, it would be hard to conceive of a causal mechanism that would associate geographical location with disgust sensitivity - certainly more difficult than conceiving a causal mechanism that would associate political ideology with disgust sensitivity... but I don't get how you can dismiss the one association (geographical location) while maintaining the other (political ideology). Have you ruled out any statistical association between geographical location and disgust sensitivity, or are you just dismissing it because it would seem implausible?

My perspective that geographical location correlates not so much with political orientation, but with pervasive social influences, and that disgust-sensitivity would likewise be associated with social influences. In other words, I my working theory is that social influence is the common causality behind both correlations (although one of those variables may well have a moderator effect on the casual relationship between social influences and the other variable).

I have a hard time accepting that there is a thing such as "basic disgust," and consequently that liberals and conservatives would really be differentially "disgust sensitive" as opposed to socially conditioned to be disgusted by different things. But I will have to read more of your work and think harder about your work in order to maintain my view. Help me out here. Throw me a bone. I don't really want to have to do all that work with the possible outcome that I will have to completely revamp my perspective on the nature of motivated reasoning.

July 24, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJoshua


I agree that that there is a need to get clear both on what "disgust" is & on how to measure it.

I think there is common agreement among those who disagree about who uses disgust and for what that the thing in question is an affective state that is defined by a combination of judgments and "action tendencies" in relation to the jdugment.

This would fit a basic "cognitive" account of what emotions are & how they are to be individuated (Wm. James, Martha Nussbaum, Atonio Damassio, et al. all proceed in this way). We then might say "anger" is the judgment that some other agent has afforded insufficient regard for some good or state of affairs (maybe insufficient regard for one's own status) and is associated with a motivation to visit some sort of retribution (or at least see the same visited on) the transgressor. Fear is the perception that some external contingency threatens impairment of some valued good or state of affairs, and the associated desire to remove the threatened good from harm's way & some such.

Disgust then is typically viewed as the judgment that an external contingency threatens to contaminate or pollute one's self, and the associated desire to separate onseself from it or remove or isolate it.

Okay, so everyone would say that execrement elicits disgust in a pattern that fits this account.

But it is at lest possible that transgression of moral norms generally would. Exposure to sexual deviancy, or physical indulgences (masturbation, consumption of intoxicants), or sadistic cruelty (think of a 'snuff" film that features prolonged torture of child-- or maybe of a parent who invokes his need to care for his child in an appeal for mercy) "contaminate" and "pollute" our *character* by exciting apptites for forms of behavior, or inuring us to the same, in a manner degrades us, coarsens our sensibilities and perceptions, and otherwise makes us vicious. So we are revulsed and recoil and react toward such things in the same way we would were we confronted with a slithering snake on a nest of maggots, etc.

That woudl be the claim of someone who sees "disgust" as a "moral sentiment." Then someone might say in addition that the *objects* that elicit that apprehension of the contamination or pollution of human character are distinctive of "only some" moral styles -- the claim of those who believe conservatives make exclusive use of emotion. Others might say that all cultural or moral styles will have this form of disgust as a moral sentiment, but it will vary in ways that reflect the distinctive conceptions of virtue that they adhere to.

William Miller advances this claim -- and so does Mary Douglas; they woudl, for that reason, resject the idea that 'conservatives" only use "disgust" to reinforce their cultural norms. So they woudl actually agree w/ you in some sense about liberals (although I'm sure they'd beoth view the categories of "liberal" & "conservative" as unsatisfying as accounts of cultural styles); that is, they'd agree "liberals" use disgust to propogate their preferred norms.. But they'd say it's really disgust that they are uisng to do that, and not just anger. Theyd' also say that "conservatives" are doing it too.

How do we know who is right about who uses disgust as a moral sentiment? Or whether in fact any of these people who think is a "moral" sentiment are right? They might all be wrong to thing that there is a "judgment" that a particular sort of act that transgresses norms threatens to "contaminate" or pollute" our characters & a related action tendency to remove it or separate ourselves from it etc. Or that such a sentiment is the "same" thing in any meaningful way as what we experience when we see a festering, tepid puddle & contemplate taking a drink from it.

This is where measurement comes in. Obviously, one would want measures that one can be confident reliably and validly measure the sorts of judgments and action tendencies that one believes are connected to disgust. Then one could see if the negative affective apprasials that people experience when they are confronted with stimuli that researchers hypothesize 'contaminate" and "polllute" character in the way a conservative cares about or maybe a "liberal" would etc. excite those responese -- and not ones that really are associated with some other emotion, like anger, etc.

Yoel offers us a report on how a project that fits this basic account is going. It makes me believe that the conceptual and measurement issues are not bogged down with ambiguity & imprecision etc. in a manner as you seem to suggest.

He suggests that the evidence such an approach has generated suggests that the evidence tends toward the view that "disgust" is mainly focused on objects perceived to pose a risk of contaminating or polluting our bodies & not our characters, and that at least some of the evidence thought to show evidence of disgust as a moral sentiment can be shown, when one uses valid & reliable measures, to be 'confounding' disgust w/ anger.

But he adverts to some evidence that suggests that maybe conservatives are inclined to use disgust in a manner that looks like the moral account.

You might want to take a look, in this regard, at Chapman, H.A. & Anderson, A.K. Things rank and gross in nature: A review and synthesis of moral disgust. Psychological Bulletin 139, 300 (2013). Looking at experiments that present stimuli unlreated to contamination of the body, and measures that examine not just verbal self-reports but also equation of experienced emotion w/ pictures of disgust faces & w/ the physiological responses such as the facial expressions and muscle contractios observed when unambiguously disgusting stimuli (icluding bodily contaminants) are experienced, they conclude:

Using the expression endorsement methodology, two studies in adults and one in children provide evidence that disgust evoked by moral transgressions is not just anger in disguise. Adult participants who received unfair offers in an economic game strongly endorsed a disgust expression from a well-validated set (Matsumoto & Ekman, 1988) as consistent with their experience (Chapman et al., 2009). Manipulation checks confirmed that the disgust expression was viewed as the best fit for emotion descriptors such as “tasting something bad” and “smelling something bad.” These results imply that participants viewed the experience of being treated unfairly as similar to olfactory or gustatory forms of disgust. Participants also endorsed angry and sad expressions in response to unfair monetary offers, although to a lesser extent than disgust....

To summarize the complete body of self-report studies, we believe that the balance of the evidence comes out in favor of disgust toward pure moral transgressions. Five out of seven studies of verbal self-report are consistent with the idea that “pure” moral transgressions can evoke disgust, and methodological differences may account for the negative results of the other two studies. Similarly, three out of four studies of expression endorsement support disgust toward pure moral transgressions, and the fourth is difficult to interpret. Thus, when people are asked whether they find pure moral transgressions disgusting, the answer seems to be “yes."

Worth noting too that these "pure moral transgressions" are not ones that offend distinctively "conservative" values!

BTW, I found this article b/c Yoel discusses it appreciatively in his own excellent review paper, Pollution and purity in moral and political judgment. In J. Wright and H. Sarkissian (Eds.) Advances in Experimental Moral Psychology: Affect, Character, and Commitments. Continuum Press. It's part of what he is referring to, I'm sure, when he says in his post that the these are all questions "actively being researched" & are open to compting assessments and reassessments.

I see why he comes to a different conclusion from Chapman & Anderson, particularly in light of the Gutierrez & Giner-Sorrala paper, which I think Yoel more convincingly interprets than do Chapman & Anderson. But I think the debate is not over.

More importantly, the continuing nature of the debate is not a reflection of the confusion peole encounter when they are sytmied by ambiguity and imprecision. On the contrary, it is a testament to the power of the disciplined use of empirical observation and inference to advance understanding on matters like these.

July 24, 2013 | Registered CommenterDan Kahan

Thanks for that, Dan, esp. the quote from the Chapman et al paper, which is certainly interesting. I'm not sure that facial expressions/muscle contractions can provide fine enough distinctions to accurately align mental states, but I wouldn't argue against the notion that there's such a thing as real, as opposed to feigned, "moral disgust", and the phenomenon they used to test it -- unfair economic treatment, or exploitation -- seems a good example of what might elicit it. Others might be hypocrisy, or what people generally see as "vice", as in the seven deadly sins. And all of these can likely be found not just in both self-styled liberals and conservatives, but across all cultural quadrants, and probably across all cultures too, even if in different forms.

But that doesn't preclude a more conscious or more sophisticated use of disgust, or what one calls disgust, as a means of expressing a much less instinctive, and a much less universal anger or hostility toward particular opinions, values, symbols, etc., which are simply attached to what is seen as the cultural Other. Allowing, for the sake of argument, that such forms of expression do appear, one question would be why -- i.e., why not simply express the hostility as anger rather than the more adopted form of disgust? And one answer might be that "disgust" seems to root the hostility in that instinctive aversion to things that are inherently or universally "nasty", whereas anger simply seems relative to one's particular set of values, of which there are others. Despite that rationale, though, there's a kind of "meta-moral" level involved, in which this sort of moral display -- assuming it exists -- comes across as a kind of bad faith or disingenuousness. It would be interesting to see if the physical symptoms Chapman used could discern a difference between moral disgust as revulsion and moral disgust as anger.

July 24, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterLarry


On measurement:

There's a good amount of research on the reliability of *recognition* of emotional appraisals in facial expressions. So the idea is to try to figure out a way to measure whether a subject is experiencing the signature "disgust" face as opposed to "anger" etc. If the method is valid -- if there really are different facial expressions for differnt emotions and the ones identified correspond to the emotions in question -- then one needs a reliable measure of the signature facial expression by the subject. My understanding is that the musucular contractions are identifiable & can be measured fairly precisely. One can also use measures of responses obtained by that mode to validate self-report measures. Imprecision, of course, will create noise, not bias, in testing hypotheses.

On strategic:

I think it's not plausible to think that indiividuals could strategically *experience* disgust. Emotions are automatic processes; they have a cognitive "content" -- they are associatd with a distinctive appraisal of some object -- but they can't be "willed" any more than either a perception or belief can.

However, it is plausible to think that one might try to cultivate, in oneself & others, the tendency to *be* disgusted by things that offend a particular set of norms. That could be done by a program of education (not one occurring or occurring exclusively in schools, of course) that conduced to formation of the appraisals of goods and states of affairs that then predictably generate "disgust" when those goods or states of affairs are encountered. Martha Nussbaum and other "cognitive" theoriests of emotion focus a lot on the conscious inculcation of judgments that then can be expected to govern the unconscous, automatic processes that result in emotional appraisals.

I think Miller & Douglas believe that cultural institutions tend to inculate disgust in this fashion in a manner that tends to reinforce those instituitions. (Their accounts of the mnechanisms are unsatisfying.)

Accordingly, one might, in a strategic cast of mind,advocate the self-conscious cultivation and propogation of disgust sensibilities in the public to promote desired institutions, including 'liberal ones etc; indeed, one might do so preciely to counteract the contribution that existing digust sensibilities make to reinforcing institutions ('conservative' ones, say; although you know I am disgusted by "liberal" & "conservative" as meaningful ways to designate competing forms of cultural life). It is an interesting moral question whether such a program would be consitent with political liberalism. I think it would be, so long as not advanced through law or with the authority of the state.

July 25, 2013 | Unregistered Commenterdmk38


I think it's not plausible to think that indiividuals could strategically *experience* disgust.

No, and that's not what I meant. I wasn't even thinking of the deliberate or "strategic" cultivation of disgust, though that's an interesting notion in itself. I was talking simply about the verbal expression of disgust as a rhetorical device -- i.e., saying "I'm disgusted by that" as just a stronger or more forceful (for reasons I gave above) way of saying "I'm angered by that", or, even less forceful, "I dislike that" or "I oppose that". This is a form, in other words, of dissembling, and for that reason is itself morally questionable, as I said in referring to it as bad faith or disingenuous.

Re: the deliberate/"strategic" cultivation of disgust, I'd only note that it can cut both ways -- that is, the "desired institutions" one might wish to promote in that way may well be "conservative" ones, and, as you say, "one might do so preciely to counteract the contribution that existing digust sensibilities make to reinforcing institutions", but in this case those would be "liberal" ones. You may be right that such a program or policy isn't necessarily incompatible with political liberalism (in the small-l sense that includes present day conservatism), but I think it is incompatible with a larger liberal sensibility, for reasons I argued previously.

July 25, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterLarry

Ah, I see. This might well be. But do you think it would promote the agenda of "liberals" to express disgust more than it would promote the agenda of "conservatives" to do the same? Maybe it would, which would be surprising, given the conventional view that "disgust" is a conservative moral sentiment but not a liberal one. My own sense is that everyone expresses disgust toward and then *disclaims* reliance on it as a ground for regulating behavior (whether gay marriage or gun possession) that they are repulsed by. The "disclaiming" makes good strategic sensece, since the "harm" principle is woven into the fabric of contemporary legal and political conventions

July 25, 2013 | Registered CommenterDan Kahan

At this point, I'd just like to correct this: "Larry's surmise that disgust is a kind of feigned strategic posturing on the part of "liberals."". My point was that some (but not all) expressions of moral disgust are "a kind of feigned strategic posturing", and, further, that this posturing can be used by people across the political/cultural spectrum/landscape, not necessarily just liberals. The assumption that it's characteristic, or more characteristic, just of liberals suggests an acceptance of your option A in the post above, since it seems to imply that "liberals", unlike "conservatives", wouldn't naturally or honestly experience moral disgust themselves. But that implication itself seems to argue against the option, don't you think?

July 26, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterLarry


Sorry for failing to convey your positionw/ sufficient precision. I didn't think you meant to say that "all" disgust is feigned & strategic; I wasn't sure until now, though, wehther you thought the "feigned strategic' was common to 'conservatives' too. I was inclined to read you as saying "only liberals" b/c your examples of feigned disgust were toward racism & homophobia. But I wasn't sure, and hence my question to you about this in my last posted comment.

I'm not quite following the argument/question part of the comment. The "it" in "The assumption that it's characteristic, or more characteristic, just of liberals ..." is strategic feigned disgust? If so, then I would agree that that way of understanding your point would fit "A." I don't get in that case, though, how the "implication itself seems to argue against the option."

I myself would say that feigning disgust is not a good strategy for any group since it is widely accepted that "disgust" is not sufficient to justify legal regulation in a Liberal society. There must be harm. Accordingly, conservativdes & liberals alike, while expressing disgust promicuously, also tend to insist that that's not the basis for their support for regulating the things that revile them. Most famous e.g. of conservatives insisting that that they don't view there admitted disgust w/ deviant behavior as reason for regulating it -- harm is needed too -- is Lord Devlin in debate w/ HLA Hart over Wolfenden Report.

July 26, 2013 | Registered CommenterDan Kahan


I guess it's my turn to apologize for being imprecise. Yes, the "it" refers to feigned disgust, and I thought that the implication that liberals are either incapable of, or at least less capable of, real moral disgust seemed in turn to imply a kind of moral deficit, akin to sociopathy say, on their part. But that's only a fragment, I guess, of a longer argument that would support one aspect of option A but challenge another -- specifically, it would change point 3 to read "disgust is characteristically human, but it isn't morally sufficient".

In this sense, it does parallel the model of thought you're talking about. Consider, in fact, three aspects of mind: perception, thought, and (moral) judgment. All three can exhibit an immediate apprehension of a situation, and all three can be, and often need to be, supplemented by further processing: as in attention, "system 2" analysis, and conscious moral reflection. In this sense, the immediate moral apprehension that's manifested as disgust is simply a first stage of a more complex analysis that leads to a defensible (more or less) moral judgment -- i.e., unlike option B, disgust is not enough, and unlike option A, disgust and defensible moral judgments aren't (necessarily) antagonistic, but are part of a larger process.

July 26, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterLarry

“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. “

This difference between, what you describe as 'the physically disgusted' and 'closer to anger' disgusted doesn't seem to be a different emotion, only a different physical preparation for defense against the intrusion of what the individual is disgusted by. The presence of disgusting food, levels of cleanliness, and sex produce through the emotional response feelings of illness and the precursor to vomiting -- and I'm quite sure that if forced to press forward, to maybe come in contact with the object of disgust, vomiting would actually occur. This physical response serves to ward off contamination.

Anger wards off contamination as well, from everything else that the other didn't. Anger may have physical correlates such as increased heart rate, blood pressure, and levels of adrenaline and noradrenaline. Some view anger as an emotion which triggers part of the fight or flight brain response. Anger becomes the predominant feeling behaviorally, cognitively, and physiologically when a person makes the conscious choice to take action to immediately stop the threatening behavior of another outside force. -- often leading to verbally-vomiting on the threat.

Neurologically the emotion appears to have a central core area of the brain along with another active area which seems to suggest the 'type' of physical response the body will prepare to ward off the perceived contamination. So, same emotion, different physical responses, but same purpose for those responses.

"The results indicate that the processing of disgust- and fear-inducing pictures involves similar as well as distinct brain regions. Both emotional stimulus categories resulted in activations in the extended occipital cortex, in the prefrontal cortex, and in the amygdala. However, insula activations were only significantly correlated with subjective ratings of disgust, pointing to a specific role of this brain structure in the processing of disgust."
(Stark et al. 2007) doi:10.1016/j.neuroimage.2007.05.005

Another study suggested that three, not two distinct forms of disgust

Core, animal reminder, and contamination disgust: Three kinds of disgust with distinct personality, behavioral, physiological, and clinical correlates - suggests three distinct types of disgust
Core disgust
Animal reminder disgust
Contamination disgust

Thank you very much for the post. I am wondering if you have ever looked into the alteration of disgust? Perhaps methods of leading disgust toward acceptance ?

August 5, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterGlenn Hefley

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