2017-06-16

Disgust and Moral Judgment

"Purity" -- and it's opposite, "pollution" -- have been getting slowly edged out of morality. This is new. For most of human history, some notion of "purity" mattered, but Western culture in recent centuries has been paring morality down to only questions of fairness and harm. Think, for instance, of all the rules in Leviticus. Here are two:
"You shall not round off the hair on your temples or mar the edges of your beard." (Lev. 19:27)

"...nor shall you put on a garment made of two different materials." (Lev. 19:19)
These aren't rules about treating people fairly and not harming them. They identify what is taboo. Purity rules identify actions that are intrinsically bad -- bad, not because they produce a harm or injustice, but just because they are bad in themselves. Purity rules are nonrational in the sense that they aren't supported by reasons that connect to justice, fairness, rights, or harm. But they are often powerful.

Why do humans have purity rules?

The brain -- and the body, too, for that matter -- is an array of kluges. (The term "kluge" is borrowed from engineering. It's a kind of patch or workaround -- a "quick-and-dirty solution that is clumsy, inelegant, inefficient, difficult to extend and hard to maintain.") Evolution has to use kluges to adapt organisms to changing circumstances because there is no option to go back to the drawing-board and design from scratch a more elegant way to meet emerging new needs. Evolution has to build from what 's there, and often appropriates an organ or structure and puts it to an entirely different use from the purpose for which it originally emerged. (I provide a few examples HERE.)

One of the things that has been "there" since before the emergence of the first vertebrates was an olfactory nerve, which detects odors. In mammals, the signal from the olfactory is processed in the insular cortex which guides us away from what we shouldn't eat by triggering a disgust reaction.

As some of the mammals began to develop greater sociability, ways of monitoring and regulating each other's behavior was necessary: the beginnings of morality. Today, we still sometimes call particularly bad behavior "disgusting." Or we say that a suspicious situation "smells fishy." In fact, our neural system for moral reaction is a kluge that incorporated and built upon our smell-sensing apparatus. Your insular cortex gets more active when you are seeing or thinking about something morally dubious. What began in our ancestors as a disgust reaction for avoiding unwholesome food was appropriated into a system for avoiding wrong behavior.
Disgust: The same facial expression conveys both
moral aversion and detection of unpleasant smells
  • Subjects asked to make judgments about controversial issues (e.g., marriage between first cousins or the making of a documentary in which people were tricked into being interviewed) make harsher moral judgments if they are standing next to a smelly trash can than if they are not. The brain more easily finds behavior morally disgusting if the disgust reaction is already given a little jump start.
  • Subjects "asked to wash their hands with soap before filling out questionnaires become more moralistic about issues related to moral purity (such as pornography and drug use)" (Jonathan Haidt, The Righteous Mind 71). The brain that has been oriented toward cleanliness is then also more oriented to "moral cleanliness."
  • Subjects filling out a political attitude survey gave more conservative answers if a dispenser of hand sanitizer was nearby when they took the survey.
  • It works in reverse as well: moral aversion increases interest in cleaning oneself. Subjects "asked to recall their own moral transgression, or merely copy by by hand an account of someone else's moral transgression, find themselves thinking about cleanliness more often, and wanting more strongly to cleanse themselves" (Haidt).
A connection between the immoral and the malodorous is a feature of the brain's wiring. But while we don't have to learn what smells bad, we do have to learn what behaviors count as immoral. The ancient Hebrews learned that rounding off the hair of the temples was bad. Traditional Malaysians learned that throwing out trash during the first four days of the new year was bad. I learned that peeking at another student's test paper was bad. In all these cases, the learning was a matter of the brain being trained to process certain behaviors through, among other places, the insular cortex.

It's no wonder that humans, for most of our history, have been concerned with purity rules. We still are, of course, even if we are often unaware of it. Conservative rhetoric tends to more often invoke nonrational moral sensibilities (consider the rise of the alt-right insult "cuck") -- and there's some evidence that that this isn't accidental: a stronger attraction to purity rules is part of what seems to incline a person to be conservative (see Greg Murray, "Are You Easily Disgusted? You May Be a Conservative," Psychology Today.) Yet we all have intuitive, disgust-related moral reactions. There may be real health reasons to not eat rotted food, but we don't rely on reasons: it's disgusting. Under certain elaborately specified conditions incest, or cannibalism, or eating a cockroach may involve no harm or injustice and yet most of us, even under those specified conditions, find these things disgusting.

An experimenter, Scott Murphy, offered subjects
"$2 if they would sign a piece of paper that said: I, _____, hereby sell my soul, after my death to Scott Murphy, for the sum of $2. There was a line for a signature, and below the line was this note: This form is part of psychology experiment. It is NOT a legal or binding contract in any way. Scott also told them they could rip up the paper as soon as they signed it, and they'd still get their $2. Only 23 percent of subjects were willing to sign . . ." (Haidt 44)
Apparently, refraining from "selling your soul" is a lingering purity rule for most of us.

The question is: Are we making progress when we move toward a more strictly rational morality, increasingly minimizing whatever purity rules are left? Or are we, instead, becoming disconnected from our inherent nature?

What do you think?

3 comments:

  1. Complicated subject. The mention of "purity rules" in Leviticus omits the most notorious and (these days) most hotly contested of them: "If a man lies with a male as with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination; they shall be put to death, their blood is upon them" (Lev. 20:13). Some people still base their moral judgment against same-sex intercourse on that scripture. Others feel disgust at the practice, and base their moral judgment against it on their disgust. Still others object on both grounds at once.

    Yet others (I'm one) have no objection either way to men having sex with men. We say: Do not prohibit same-sex intercourse at all; celebrate it, even, as an expression of love. The ancient scriptural directive we dismiss as the product of a long-gone time --wrong, oppressive, love-denying, even God-denying.

    These varied responses see disgust and moral judgment as related in distinct ways. Sometimes they are seen as twin forces urging us in a single direction; sometimes as conflicting; sometimes as mutually irrelevant --as if any feelings of disgust we may harbor regarding particular acts should have no place whatever in our effort to arrive at reasoned moral judgment about them. It's as if disgust should either be driven out of our hearts entirely, or disciplined and, if need be, overruled by reasoned moral judgment. Disgust may thus align with moral judgment or conflict with it, but it’s alignment we seek --and alignment, at that, with reasoned judgment always in the driver's seat.

    But somehow that ideal feels unsatisfactory. Yes, I said "feels," as though feeling, despite the subservient position I've just assigned it, nevertheless somehow wins out. Feeling guides our reason at least as much as the other way around; in fact, that's how we should prefer it. Otherwise we find ourselves feeling (there's that word again) not quite human, almost robotic. And who among us is comfortable with that? So yes: Complicated subject.

    We'll make no progress here until we recognize that the feeling-vs.-reason dichotomy is a false one --that there's feeling at the root of all our reasoned judgments, often playing a larger role than we've suspected; and also that there's something like reason that often underlies feeling. If the smell of rotting food disgusts us, that's, well, reasonable: It discourages our eating of it, and so prevents our doing ourselves harm. Here feeling supports reasoned judgment --in fact offers a shortcut to a reasoned decision, obviating the need for a lot of tedious logical steps. We turn away in disgust because it’s more efficient than reasoning things out.

    Of course, feeling may not always lead us down a straight, true path to reasonable acts. Reading through the "purity rules" in Leviticus, for instance, we find that some make perfect sense, and others seem as if they MIGHT have made sense (i.e. their injunctions might have been reasonable) in a desert tribal culture two or three millennia ago. Others, though, strike us now as baffling --e.g. the prohibitions against trimming the hair and beard or against wearing garments made of more than one material.

    But maybe we can see the reasonableness, in context, of the old purity rules if we consider that they might be traceable to some practical necessity that would have been evident enough at the time, even if it seems less so to us now. The Israelite priests might, for instance, have banned the wearing of mixed-fabric garments, or the trimming of beards, because other peoples of the region, observing no such prohibitions, could be recognized promptly as alien when encountered in the desert.

    Can we build an explanation of purity rules along these lines? Maybe. But even if not, the effort might help us see the reasonableness of those rules in their time, and might even help us judge which of them to preserve, which to amend, and which to abandon.

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    Replies
    1. Part 1.

      Good points, Ormond. Thanks!

      OS: 'The mention of "purity rules" in Leviticus omits the most notorious and (these days) most hotly contested of them: "If a man lies with a male as with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination; they shall be put to death, their blood is upon them" (Lev. 20:13).'

      Yes, I was thinking of that one. Thanks for bringing it up. Sixty years ago moral repugnance at homosexual contact was so widespread and taken for granted that it was taken to be a knock-down argument against utilitarianism. (Homosexuality is clearly wrong, even though it doesn't produce harm or diminish good, so, therefore, it must be the case that morality cannot be a solely a matter of the greatest good for the greatest number.) The evolution in moral thinking in the West nowhere more clearly demonstrates the shift away from purity rules than in the dramatic rise in the general acceptance of same-sex relationships in merely two generations.

      OS: 'Some people still base their moral judgment against same-sex intercourse on that scripture. Others feel disgust at the practice, and base their moral judgment against it on their disgust. Still others object on both grounds at once.'

      My suspicion would be that there aren't very many people in the first category who aren't also in the second. I think usually the disgust comes first, and the latching onto scripture as a justification is a post facto rationalization. Those who get over their disgust, I imagine, will find the significance of Lev 20:13 receding into the same irrelevance to their day-to-day moral judgment that, say, Lev 19:19 has.

      OS: 'Yet others (I'm one) have no objection either way to men having sex with men. We say: Do not prohibit same-sex intercourse at all; celebrate it, even, as an expression of love.'

      Yes, we do say that, and I'm glad we do. It still needs saying, unfortunately. And there are a lot more people saying it than were saying it when you and I were growing up. Contemporary Western society has, perhaps, not entirely jettisoned that particular purity rule, but it's remarkable how much it has been weakened in a relatively short time.

      "Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions," said Hume. "Slave" may be a little too strong, but only a little. The passions are clearly in charge, but reason offers guidance. The guidance is often disregarded or ignored, but not always. Reason is the somewhat-neglected adviser to the passions. Reason is thus less our passion’s slave than our passion’s attorney: trying (occasionally successfully) to steer us away from foolishness before we do it, and concocting defenses for us afterward.

      If reasoned judgment is "in the drivers seat" then what it is driving is less like a car, responding to the driver's every control, and more like an elephant with a mind of its own. Reason can exert some influence sometimes on the elephant’s direction, but reason is often more "rider" than "driver."

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    2. Part 2.

      OS: 'If the smell of rotting food disgusts us, that's, well, reasonable: It discourages our eating of it, and so prevents our doing ourselves harm. Here feeling supports reasoned judgment --in fact offers a shortcut to a reasoned decision, obviating the need for a lot of tedious logical steps.'

      The reasonableness, as distinct from the disgust, is very recent. The understanding of what rotted food does in a digestive system is modern. For the vast majority of human history, there was no independent "reasoned judgment" being supported by disgust. Rather, the only approximation of reasoned judgment we had was post facto rationalizations of behavior that was driven by the disgust reaction.

      But the the "shortcut" idea you mention is an important point. Imagine choosing a new washing machine from 10 similar but slightly different models. The passions don't care, so the choice is left up to reason to work out. It's tedious and tiring. If every little decision had to be worked out that way, it would be exhausting. We couldn't do it. The shortcuts that our emotion-based preferences provide us are not merely handy but vitally necessary just to get through a normal day.

      Antonio Damasio's *Descartes' Error* describes patients with damage to the ventromedial prefrontal cortex. Their "emotionality" has dropped to about zero. They retain all the reasoning capacity about moral decision-making that normal people have, they suffer no drop in IQ, they can talk appropriately about what is right and wrong, and they score well on Kohlberg tests of moral reasoning. Nevertheless, in their personal and work lives they made many foolish decisions, or failed to come to a decision at all. The alienated the people around them and their lives fell apart. We very much need those nonrational shortcuts.

      Purity rules vary widely from culture to culture -- even between cultures that are neighbors and face essentially the same environmental conditions. I have yet to see any very convincing explanation for many of them. Perhaps a few of them, as you suggest, actually conferred advantages, though the mechanism by which they produced the advantage was entirely hidden from the cognitive brain (once such a mechanism is cognitively and consciously known, the rule moves from being a purity rule to being a known means to a known end.) My guess is that most of them emerged the way superstitions usually do: products of someone's "post hoc ergo propter hoc" fallacy that happened to catch on and spread through a population. I will concede, though, that an inordinate number of the purity rules in almost any culture have to do with food or sex. If, as I said in the original post, morality is kluge built onto a disgust system designed to steer us away from certain foods, then it makes sense that so many purity rules would be about food. I'm not sure how the disgust-morality circuitry came to be so oriented toward labeling and harshly judging sexual "deviance." I understand, of course, that monitoring and condemning activity outside the pair bond was important for making sure one's genes were passed on, but how does that lead to prohibitions like Lev 20:13? I notice that the people whose worst insult is now "cuck" are (by and large) the same people whose worst insult used to be "faggot." They've shifted ground on which sexual purity rule is most important to them, but neither one has a basis in either reason or compassion. It seems to have some sort of basis in disgust, but how that works, I'm curious to understand.

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