The disgust we feel at the sight of blood or the taste of spoiled milk is well known. And while this disgust is uncomfortable to experience, it is generally viewed as beneficial – an emotional response that protects us from the pathogens that may lurk in what repels us.
But appreciate the value of the disgust we feel moral Affairs is a more complicated matter. While disgust of this type appears valuable when we experience it towards things like racism or those that exploit the elderly, it is problematic when experienced towards minorities or the MAGA crowd. So what should we do with this?
On this issue, philosophers and public intellectuals are divided: some praise, others despise the idea that disgust is morally valuable. For proponents, disgust is a strong and malleable emotion that we can shape to protect ourselves from morally harmful behavior: hypocrisy, betrayal, cruelty, and the like. In contrast, skeptics claim that disgust is a misleading and disturbingly rigid response. In their view, we are too easily disgusted by the morally harmless and too powerless people to prevent us from demonizing those we are disgusted with.
Until recently, however, few realized that these assessments of the moral worth of disgust kick in empirically Questions about what we can do to mold disgust for the better. Also, if we look at what recent cognitive science research has told us about this question, can we cultivate disgust? – we see that both sides are wrong. We really can’t care for Disgust in the way its proponents assume. That is, and contrary to the judgment of the skeptics, we can improve our ability control when and how do we feel our disgust.
This difference between cultivating and controlling disgust is subtle but important. And once we realize it, we are forced to reconsider not only our assessments of the moral worth of disgust, but more fundamental questions about what it means to become a more virtuous person.
Let us first consider the virtues of disgust. Not only do we tend to feel disgust at moral faults such as hypocrisy and exploitation, but the shunning and social exclusion that disgust brings seems to be an appropriate response for those who pollute the moral fabric in this way. Also, given concern about morally problematic disgust – disgust felt at the wrong time or in the wrong way – proponents respond that it is an emotion that we can substantially change for the better.
On this front, proponents of disgust point to exposure and habituation; Just as I could overcome the disgust I feel about exotic foods by trying them, I can overcome the disgust I feel about same-sex marriages by spending more time with gay couples. Furthermore, work in psychology seems to support this picture. For example, medical students lose their disgust at touching corpses after a few months of dissecting corpses, and new mothers quickly become less disgusted with the smell of dirty diapers.
However, these results can be deceptive. If we take a closer look at the results of the diaper experiment, we first see that a mother’s decreased disgust sensitivity is most pronounced in relation to her own baby’s diapers, and additional research shows that mothers generally prefer the smell of their diapers to their own children. This combination, contrary to proponents of disgust, suggests that a mother’s disgust will not be eliminated. Rather, their disgust at the dirty diapers is still there; It is only masked by the positive feelings she gets from the smell of her newborn. Similarly, upon closer inspection of the cadaver study, we find that medical students’ disgust at touching the cold bodies of the dissection laboratory decreases with exposure, while the disgust they feel at touching the warm bodies of the recently deceased remains unchanged .
All of this may seem like fodder for the skeptic’s claim that disgust is morally problematic; After all, there seems to be little we can do to mold our disgust for the better. But that would be too fast.
There is not much we can do in terms of content change What we are disgusted with can potentially improve our ability control when and how do we feel our disgust. Even if disgust itself is too rigid to be changed, there seem to be other psychological mechanisms associated with disgust – things like our attention systems and cognitive processing routines – that are more malleable. Focusing on these mechanisms could therefore offer a better strategy for combating morally problematic disgust.
We get an indication of this in the diaper experiment, where it appears that the disgusting reactions of mothers are canceled out by the positive feelings they experience through mother-child bonding processes. And this image has further support in research that highlights the effectiveness of “implementation intent” on our ability to control problematic disgust.
In the end, implementation intentions are the if-then rules that guide our actions. The important thing is that strategies they address don’t directly seek to change a person’s disgust. Rather, they aim to develop people’s (not disgusted) attention skills. This enables them to better identify situations in which a disgust response can fail, so that they can better control the resulting disgust. For example, someone disgusted at the sight of blood might adopt an implementation intent such as “When I see blood, I take a doctor’s perspective” or “When I see blood, I remain calm and relaxed” to both their assessment and disgusting the blood is, as well as moderating their subsequent reactions to it.
While researchers have not yet explored the effectiveness of implementation intent as a corrective agent for morally problematic disgust, several studies have found the technique to be effective in combating excessive disgust in non-moral situations (e.g., when looking at body fluids).
Where does all of this leave us in relation to the question of the moral worth of disgust? For starters, we can see that proponents are right, that disgust is a morally strong response to hypocrites, cheaters, and the like; Without disgust, we would be missing an important way of responding to those who take advantage of others. But proponents wrongly think that disgust is a malleable emotion that we can substantially change for the better. In the other direction, we also see that skeptics overstate their concerns: while we cannot significantly change morally problematic disgust, we can learn to control it effectively through the use of implementation intent.
To see what this might look like, consider someone who is severely disgusted by members of a certain minority group (let’s call this group the “Gs”). Such a person would be well advised to adopt implementation intentions to help them control their disgust – something like, “When I see Gs, I’ll take Martin Luther King Jr.’s perspective.” or “When I see Gs, I’ll relax and be friendly.” As suggested above, employing such a strategy should allow them to better identify situations where their disgust response may fail so that they can take implementation intentions that will help them control their response.
But there may be another lesson here. The prevailing philosophical view of moral development, which has its roots in Aristotle, sees the emergence of virtue as a process of transforming problematic emotions; The coward’s fear turns into the brave person’s emotional attunement to danger. However, a closer look at the science of disgust reveals that not all emotions are like that: some emotions resist our efforts to substantially change them for the better. So in these cases, the point is not to achieve an emotional transformation to become a more virtuous person. Rather, it is the process by which we improve our emotional self-awareness and self-control.
This is an opinion and analysis article.