About Rationally Speaking

Rationally Speaking is a blog maintained by Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City University of New York. The blog reflects the Enlightenment figure Marquis de Condorcet's idea of what a public intellectual (yes, we know, that's such a bad word) ought to be: someone who devotes himself to "the tracking down of prejudices in the hiding places where priests, the schools, the government, and all long-established institutions had gathered and protected them." You're welcome. Please notice that the contents of this blog can be reprinted under the standard Creative Commons license.

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Disgusting, isn't it?

Disgust is a universal emotion among human beings, but can it be used as a guide to moral decisions? According to so-called “bioethicist” Leon Kass (University of Chicago, chair of Prez Bush's Council on Bioethics from '02 to '05) the answer is a resounding yes:

“We are repelled by the prospect of cloning human beings not because of the strangeness or novelty of the undertaking, but because we intuit and feel, immediately and without argument, the violation of things that we rightfully hold dear… Shallow are the souls that have forgotten how to shudder.”

“Immediately and without argument”? Hmm, let's see, I have an instinctive reaction of disgust – immediate and without argument – to cockroaches (not to mention to pompous bioethicists), and yet I do not advocate their eradication from planet earth, perhaps mindful of something my grandmother used to say (in Neapolitan dialect): “Ogni scarrafone e` bello a' mamma soja” (roughly, every cockroach is beautiful to his own mother).

The quote by Kass is used as the entry point for an insightful essay on disgust published recently in Nature by Dan Jones (14 June 2007). Jones goes on to show that recent research on disgust implies that Kass's “reasoning” is deeply flawed: there are plenty of things we find instinctively distasteful, but it turns out that instinct is often a bad guide to decision making, especially of the moral kind.

Jones traces the roots of disgust for morally repugnant actions to its more biologically basic counterpart: disgust to things that may injure us physically. For example, disgust at the sight of blood and feces probably originated because it is in fact good to confine the first one inside our bodies, and keep the latter as far as possible from us.

Brain imaging studies have shown that there is an overlap between the neural basis of “core” and “cognitive” disgust, i.e. of disgust for biological objects and for morally repulsive actions respectively. As is usual in evolution, old tools (neural machinery for core disgust) are reused and reshaped for another function (cognitive disgust).

While the rest of Jones' essay is fascinating, I want to draw attention to a particular finding that sheds some additional light on that perennial difference between socially progressive and conservative people, a distinction that has existed since the dawn of recorded history, and that is causing so much havoc still today. University of Virginia psychologist Jonathan Haidt and graduate student Jesse Graham have expanded on previous theory to come up with a list of five domains for ethical “intuitions” that seem to be common across humankind: concern for harm to people, fairness, loyalty to members of the in-group, respect for authority, and “spiritual” purity.

Haidt and Graham then asked 1,613 people who identified themselves as liberals or conservatives to answer questions aimed at identifying which of the five domains elicited strong reactions from them (including cognitive disgust at certain possible moral scenarios). The results were stunning, if not entirely surprising with hindsight: while conservatives where sensitive to all five moral “domains,” liberals were concerned only with the first two (harm to others and fairness).

That may go a long way toward explaining why certain people simply cannot see the point of starting a moral crusade in response to, say, homosexuality (which falls under “spiritual purity,” whatever that is), or do not understand how someone can follow a leader regardless of how stupid or criminal his actions may be (“my country right or wrong,” which falls under both respect for authority and loyalty to the in-group).

Now, a conservative could argue that liberals are morally stunted, that they only “see” (and, more importantly, feel strongly) about a sub-set of the ethical domain. But another possibility is that conservatives don't realize that evolution is tricking them, that they are simply mis-applying their cognitive disgust to improper domains, just like Kass' pathetic appeal to conclusions that are “immediate and without argument.” Wanna bet on which of these two explanations I favor?


  1. To argue that conservatives are being tricked by evolution would imply that there is no adaptive value in having those strong feelings - but certainly there must be some adaptive value in: loyalty to members of the in-group, respect for authority, and “spiritual” purity.

    Someone who stands alone is more likely to die alone.

  2. "me,"

    sure there *was* an adaptive value to loyalty to in-group and leadership (though it's harder to see it for "spiritual purity"), but the point is that the modern cultural environment is totally different, and that those feelings are both maladaptive (they cause the war on this and against that), and just plain ethically misguided.

  3. “We are repelled by the prospect of cloning human beings"

    No, I am not. And I haven't forgotten how to shudder... For example, I shudder thinking such "luminary" used to be the chair of the President's Council on Bioethics. I think cloning human beings is not to be done (yet, maybe ever) because it's not proved to be safe. And besides, there are much more fun ways to generate kids, you know... And for those who are unable, adoption is cool too -- and without all the physical discomforts for the lady. Now, if it's ever working and safe, who am I to say you shouldn't clone yourself and have a belated twin?

    Anyway, that's got nothing to do with Massimo's original post... :-)


  4. Every adaptive pathway has pitfalls. It's just that conservatives stupidly fall into all the pits, like the dead animals trapped in the La Brea Tar.

    It's great to be loyal to a group of a dozen members when you're living in the Pleistocene, and food is scarce, and survival is hard. But in the 21st century loyalty to a leader or group, damn the evidence that they're incompetent fools, is itself an example of the Pied Piper leading rats into the river.

    Like magicians, politicians use our human adaptive traits to trick us. Except political trickery is evil and not a bit entertaining.

    How many times has Bush invoked 911, in order to keep Americans fearful and pliable?

  5. An interesting sidebar to how the feeling of disgust modifies our judgments. (perhaps off topic, but interesting)

    Yesterday my wife and I were looking at a house we are were considering buying. I had had very little sleep, and no breakfast. My stomach was unsettled because of that anyway. This house is owned by an elderly couple, and her sister lives there also, so it smelled of old lady perfume, which contributed to my gastric unease. The thing is, my "gut" feeling was that I didn't like the house. My wife loved it, and once I got out into the open air, I realized I was misjudging it.

    This is, I think an example of what Damasio calls the "Somatic marker hypothesis."

    On topic, conservatives value things liberals find to be vices, such as believing things on faith, kids not questioning their parents at all, undying loyalty ("You're doing a great job, Brownie.") They think we don't get it, we think they don't get it.

    I think the adaptive landscape has changed some, but not as much as we would like to think. Some of those conservative values are good when intelligently modulated IMHO.


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