Now, getting back to disgust: we’ve done guns & drones; what about *vaccines*?

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.

In this respect, he is aligned with William Miller and Mary Douglas, both of whom he draws on.

Cool paper — or book chapter!  Indeed, I’m eager to find & read the rest of the manuscript.

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