Is disgust “conservative”? Not in a Liberal society (or likely anywhere else)

This is a popular theme.

It is associated most prominently with the very interesting work of Jonathan Haidt, who concludes that “disgust” is characteristic of a “conservative” psychological outlook that morally evaluates behavior as intrinsically appropriate or inappropriate as opposed to a liberal one that focuses on “harm” to others.

Martha Nussbaum offers a similar, and similarly interesting account, portraying “disgust” as a sensibility that ranks people (or ways of living associated with them) in a manner that is intrinsically hierarchical.  Disgust has no role to play in the moral life of a modern democratic citizen, she concludes.

But I can’t help but thinking that things are slightly more complicated — and as a result, possibly much more interesting! — than this.

Of course, I’m thinking about this issue because I’m at least momentarily obsessed with the role that disgust is playing in public reactions to the death of a 2-year-old girl in Kentucky, who was shot by her 5-year-old brother who was “playing” with his “Crickett,” a miniaturized but authentic and fully operational .22 caliber rifle marketed under the slogan “my first gun!”

The Crickett disgusts people. Or so they say– over & over. And I believe them. I believe not only that they are experiencing a “negative affective reaction” but that what they are feeling is disgust.  Because I am experiencing that feeling, too, and the sensibility really does bear the signature elements of disgust.

I am sickened by the images featured in the manufacturer’s advertising: the beaming, gap-toothed boy discovering a Crickett when he tears open a gift-wrapped box (likely it is his birthday; “the first gun” ritual is the “bar mitzvah of the rural Southern WASP,” although he is at least 3 yrs south of 13); the determined elementary school girl taking aim with the model that has the pink faux-wood stock; the envious neighbor boy (“I wish I had one!”), whose reaction is geared to fill parents with shame for putting their son at risk of being treated as an outcast (yes, their son; go ahead & buy your tomboy the pink-stock Crickett, but if she prefers, say, to make drawings or to read about history, surely she won’t be mocked and derided).

These images frighten me. They make me mad.  And they also truly—literally—turn my stomach.

I want to bury the Crickett, to burn it, destroy it. I want it out of my sight, out of anyone‘s, because I know that it–and what it represents–can contaminate the character, corrupt it.

I’m no “conservative” and neither is anyone else whom I observe (they are all over the place) expressing disgust toward the Crickett.

But of course, this doesn’t mean “liberals” (am I one? I suppose, though what passes for “liberal” in contemporary political discourse & a lot of scholarly discourse too is so philosophically thin and so historically disconnected that it demeans a real Liberal to see the inspired moral outlook he or she has inherited made to bear the same label. More on that presently) have forgotten the harm principle.

The harm guns cause to others– just look at the dead 2 yr old girl in Kentucky, for crying out loud!–not the “disgust” they feel toward them is the reason they want to ban—restrict them!

Yes, and it’s why they have historically advocated strict regulation (outright banning, if possible) of swimming pools, which are orders of magnitude more lethal for children . . . .

And why President Obama is trying so hard to get legislation passed that would get America out of the “war on drugs,” the collateral damage of which includes many, many times more kids gunned down in public than died in Newtown. . . .

Look:  “liberals” want to enact background checks, ban assault rifles, prohibit carrying concealed handguns because they truly, honestly believe that these measures will reduce harm.

But they truly, honestly believe these things–despite the abundant evidence that such measures will have no meaningful impact on homicide, and are certain to do less than many many other things they ignore — because they are disgusted by guns.

We impute harm to what disgusts us; and we are disgusted by behavior that violates the moral norms that we hold in common with others and that define our understanding of the best way to live.

The “we” here, moreover, is not confined to “liberals.”

“Conservatives” are in the same motivated-reasoning boat. They are “disgusted” by all kinds of things–drugs, homosexuality, rap music (maybe even drones!).  But they say we should “ban”/”control” etc. such things because of the harms they cause.

It’s not characteristic of ordinary people who call themselves “conservatives”  that they see violation of “sacred” norms as a ground for punishing people independently of harm. Rather it’s characteristic of them to see harm in what disgusts them. Just as “liberals” do!

The difference between “liberals” and “conservatives” is in what they find disgusting, and hence what they see as harmful and thus worthy of legal restriction.

Or at least that is what many thoughtful scholars — like Mary Douglas, William Miller, Roger Giner-Sorrolla, among others.

Our study of cultural cognition is, of course, inspired by this basic account, and although we haven’t (so far) attempted to include observation and measurement of disgust or other identifiable moral sensibilities in our studies, I think our results are more in keeping with this position than with any that sees “conservativism” as uniquely bound up with “disgust” — or with any that tries to explain the difference in the perceptions of risk of ordinary people with reference to moral styles that consciously place varying degrees of importance on “harm.”

I wouldn’t say, of course, that the Haidt-Nussbaum position (let’s call it) has been “disproven” etc.  This work is formidable, to say the least! Whether there are differences in the cognitive and emotional processes of “liberals” and “conservatives” (as opposed to differences in the norms that orient those processes) is an important, difficult question that merits continued thoughtful investigation.

Still, it is interesting to reflect on why accounts that treat “liberals” as concerned with “harm” and “conservatives,” alone, as concerned with or motivated by “disgust” are as popular as they are—not among psychologists or others who are able and who have made the effort to understand the nature of the evidence here but among popular consumers of such work who take the “take away” of it uncritically, without reflection on the strength of the evidence or cogency of the inferences to be drawn from it (this is sad; it is a reflection of a deficit in ordinary science intelligence).

Here’s a conjecture: because we are all Liberals.

I’m not using the term “Liberal” in this sense to refer to points to the left of center on the 1-dimensional right-left spectrum that contemporary political scientists and psychologists use to characterize popular policy preferences.

The Liberalism I have in mind refers to a distinctive understanding of relationship between the individual and the state. What’s distinctive about it, in fact, is that individuals comes first. The apparatus of the state exists to secure the greatest degree of equal liberty for individuals, who aside from their obligation to abide by laws that serve that end must be respected as free to pursue happiness on terms of their own choosing.

The great mass of ordinary people who call themselves “conservatives” in the US (and in Australia, in the UK, in France, Germany, Canada . . .) are as committed to Liberalism in this sense as are those call themselves “liberals” (although in fact, the great mass of people either don’t call themselves “conservative” or “liberal” or, if they do, don’t really have any particular coherent idea of what doing so entails). They are so perfectly and completely committed to Liberalism that they can barely really conceive of what it would look like to live in a political regime with a different animating principle.

The currency of disgust is officially valueless in the Liberal state’s economy of political justification. Under the constitution of the Liberal State, the offense one group of citizens experience in observing or knowing that another finds satisfaction in a way of life the first finds repulsive is not a cognizable harm.

We all know this—better, just are this, whether or not we “know” it; it’s in the nature of a political regime to make its animating principle felt even more than “understood.” And we all honestly believe that we are abiding by this fundamental principle when we demand that behavior that truly disgusts us—the practice of same-sex or polygamous marriage, the consumption of drugs, the furnishing of a child with a “Crickett,” and the like—be prohibited not because we find it revolting but because it is causing harm.

As a result, the idea that we are unconsciously imputing “harm” selectively to what disgusts us (or otherwise offends sensibilities rooted not in our commitment to avoiding harm to others but in our commitment to more culturally partisan goods) is unsettling, and like many unsettling things a matter we tend to discount.

At the same time, the remarkable, and everywhere perfectly obvious congruence of the disgust sensibilities and perceptions of harm formed by those who hold cultural and political commitments different from our own naturally suggests to us that those others are either attempting to deceive us or are in fact deceiving themselves via a process of unconscious rationalization.

This is in fact a process well known to social psychology, which calls it “naïve realism.”  People are good at recognizing the tendency of those who disagree with them to fit their perceptions of risk and other facts related to contested policy issues to their values and group commitments. Ordinary people are realists in this sense. At the same time, they don’t readily perceive their own vulnerability to the very same phenomenon. This is the naïve part!

Here, then, people with “liberal” political outlooks can be expected to credit work that tells them that “conservatives” are uniquely illLiberal—that “conservatives,” as opposed to “liberals,” are consciously or unconsciously evaluating behavior with a morality that is guided by disgust rather than harm.

All of this is separate, of course, from whether the work in question is valid or not. My point is simply that we can expect findings of that sort to be accepted uncritically by those whose cultural and political predispositions it gratifies.

Would this be so surprising?  The work in question, after all, is itself applying the theory of “motivated cognition,” which predicts this sort of ideologically selective assessment of the strength of empirical evidence.

Still, that motivated reasoning would generate, on the part of the public, an ideological slant in the disposition to credit evidence that ilLiberal sensibilities disproportionately guide the moral judgments of those whose ideology one finds abhorent (disgusting, even) is, as I indicated, only a conjecture.

In fact, I view the experiment that I performed on cognitive reflection, ideology and motivated reasoning as effectively modeling this sort of process.

But like all matters that admit of empirical assessment, the proposition that ideologically motivated reasoning will create support for the proposition that aspects of it—including the cognitive force of “disgust” in orientating perceptions of harm—is ideologically or culturally asymmetric is not something that can be conclusively established by a single empirical study—indeed, is not something that can ever be “conclusively” settled but rather a matter on which beliefs must always be regarded as provisional and revisable in light of whatever the evidence might show.

In the meantime, we can enjoy the excellent work of scholars like Haidt and Nussbaum, and the competing positions of theorists and empiricists like Miller, Douglas, and Giner-Sorrolla, as compensation for having to enduring the depressing spectacle of cultural polarization over matters like guns, climate change, nuclear power, the HPV vaccine, drugs, unorthodox sex practices. . . etc. etc.

(Some) references:

Douglas, M. Purity and danger; an analysis of concepts of pollution and taboo. (Praeger, New York,; 1966).

Giner-Sorolla, R. & Chaiken, S. Selective Use of Heuristic and Systematic Processing Under Defense Motivation. Pers Soc Psychol B 23, 84-97 (1997).

Giner-Sorolla, R., Chaiken, S. & Lutz, S. Validity beliefs and ideology can influence legal case judgments differently. Law Human Behav 26, 507-526 (2002).

Graham, J., Haidt, J. & Nosek, B.A. Liberals and conservatives rely on different sets of moral foundations. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 96, 1029-1046 (2009).

Gutierrez, R. & Giner-Sorolla, R. Anger, disgust, and presumption of harm as reactions to taboo-breaking Behaviors. Emotion 7, 853-868 (2007).

Haidt, J. & Graham, J. When Morality Opposes Justice: Conservatives Have Moral Intuitions that Liberals may not Recognize. Social Justice Research 20, 98-116 (2007).

Haidt, J. The Righteous Mind (Pantheon Books: New York, 2012).
Haidt, J. & Hersh, M.A. Sexual morality: The cultures and emotions of conservatives and liberals. J Appl Soc Psychol 31, 191-221 (2001).

Horvath, M.A.H. & Giner-Sorolla, R. Below the age of consent: Influences on moral and legal judgments of adult-adolescent sexual relationships. J Appl Soc Psychol 37, 2980-3009 (2007).

Kahan, D. Ideology, Motivated Reasoning, and Cognitive Reflection: An Experimental Study. CCP Working Paper No. 107 (2012).

Kahan, D.M. The Cognitively Illiberal State. Stan. L. Rev. 60, 115-154 (2007).

Kahan, D.M. The Progressive Appropriation of Disgust, in Critical America. (ed. S. Bandes) 63-79 (New York University Press, New York; 1999).

Miller, W.I. The Anatomy of Disgust. (1997).

Nussbaum, M.C. Hiding from humanity: Disgust, Shame, and the Law. (Princeton University Press, Princeton, N.J.; 2004).

Robinson, R.J., Keltner, D., Ward, A. & Ross, L. Actual Versus Assumed Differences in Construal: “Naive Realism” in Intergroup Perception and Conflict. J. Personality & Soc. Psych. 68, 404-417 (1995).

Sherman, D.K., Nelson, L.D. & Ross, L.D. Naïve Realism and Affirmative Action: Adversaries are More Similar Than They Think. Basic & Applied Social Psychology 25, 275-289 (2003).

p.s. checkout the great bibliography of writings by the talented and prolific psychologist Yoel Inbar.

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