The Causes of Human Rights Violations (43): Disgust

Disgust can be good or bad for human rights. It’s probably true that no amount of rational argument against torture, incest, cannibalism etc. is as strong as the feelings of disgust produced by such actions. Some, such as Leon Kass, have therefore conceptualized disgust as a kind of moral wisdom: wisdom which can’t necessarily articulate itself or reason about itself, but which nevertheless guides our actions in a morally sound direction and guides them better and more effectively than rational argument. Disgust or nausea often makes us shudder, literally, at the immorality of others or ourselves. As a result, it helps to bring about a better world, and it does so more effectively than reasoning or persuasion (in this sense, disgust is similar to other emotions such as sympathy and shame).

Disgust is not an argument, but that’s a strength rather than a weakness if you believe the likes of Kass. It grips us, whereas arguments can be boring or unconvincing. (This can also explain why many of us have a love-hate relationship with disgust: we’re disgusted by some things, but at the same time we relish this disgust). Because of its gripping force, disgust is the human psyche policing itself and other psyches, keeping desire and passion in check and in the process making life in society a lot easier.

That is why some view disgust as the evolutionary origin of morality and law. Initially a protection mechanism against putting bad, rotten or infected stuff into our mouths, disgust quickly evolved from an emotion focused on physical health to one including morality. Moral disgust came about as one of society’s self-preserving forces, and human evolution favored the emotion because it produces social benefits such as taboos, rules and order. Human evolution favored this extension of the feeling of disgust into the realm of morality because it made social life easier, more orderly and more peaceful. These supposed evolutionary origins of moral disgust give it an added advantage compared to more rational approaches to morality: the latter can be unconvincing but most people in the world will even fail to hear them, whereas the evolutionary origins of moral disgust means that it drives all people, even those who will never hear a moral argument in their entire lives. Moral disgust therefore delivers immediate, reflexive and almost universal moral judgments.  

Complicating this simple evolutionary theory is the fact that disgust doesn’t seem to be innate, at least not in all cases: children are notoriously lacking this emotion and don’t develop it until they are three years old or something. This diminishes the strength of the evolutionary part of the argument. However, a more important problem with the argument is the fact that the objects of disgust are not the same throughout history and across societies. What was disgusting centuries ago isn’t anymore – or vice versa – and different societies find different things disgusting. Agreed, the range is somewhat limited: disgust is mostly about things related to the human body (e.g. torture), and more specifically to metabolism (eating and excreting disgusting things with our disgusting intestines), sex (doing disgusting things with each other with our disgusting organs) and mortality (being a disgusting corpse). But within this range many different things can be viewed as disgusting, and it’s not obvious that all the things we would label immoral from a reasoned point of view are always and everywhere disgusting, or that everything that is seen as disgusting by some is also immoral upon reflection.

For all these reasons, we have to conclude that disgust isn’t a very reliable moral faculty. It can make mistakes, and often has. Not so long ago, the supposed body odor of blacks, their curly hair and facial features routinely provoked disgust among whites (still today but less commonly so). And I’m convinced that this disgust was a major cause of the subjugation of blacks. The same is true for some, now less pervasive beliefs about the disgusting nature of homosexual activity.

So it’s clear that disgust can be either beneficial or detrimental for human rights. Lack of disgust where disgust would be appropriate can lead someone to violate someone else’s rights, but inappropriate disgust can have the same result. One would therefore be wrong to label disgust as a kind of moral wisdom, superior to rational thinking about morality. 

The problem is then how to distinguish good disgust from bad disgust. For example, why is disgust directed at pedophilia appropriate, whereas disgust about interracial sex is not? Whatever the answer, we won’t get there without reasoning. Hence, reasoning reclaims its position at the top of moral faculties. Disgust, rather than a type of moral wisdom, seems to be a socially transmitted and culturally specific substitute for the absence of reasons.

This is why many argue against the use of disgust as a tool for human rights protection. In theory, it could work, just as the incitement of shame and sympathy can work. But it’s dangerous:

maybe we should try portraying racism and racists as disgusting. The powerful influence of this emotion might help push racism to the edge of society or eliminate it altogether, but my response is that we still shouldn’t do it. It’s not ethically appropriate to deliberately depict any group of people as disgusting because disgust makes it very easy to dehumanize, and that would do the very thing we seek to undo. (source)

More posts in this series are here.

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