July 6, 2022

Moral disgust: Is there wisdom in repugnance?

The ‘yuk’ factor can sometimes play a decisive role in our moral assessments. But how reliable a guide are our visceral reactions of disgust?

The ‘yuk’ factor can sometimes play a decisive role in our moral assessments. But how reliable a guide are our visceral reactions of disgust? This question has become one of the most popular topics of research in the field of moral psychology.

Many academics around the world now call themselves ‘disgustologists’ – experts in the science of disgust. One such expert, Val Curtis of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, was interviewed on the BBC recently. Curtis believes that disgust is a evolved emotional trait by which we instinctually avoid things we believe could be carrying disease: “[One clear function is that] it keeps us out of things that might have an infectious disease.”

According to Curtis these same visceral reactions of disgust carry over into our moral assessments. Sometimes this is a useful thing, sometimes not: “A part of our moral disgust we need to listen to… because it can help the moral framework of society on the other hand, part of our history is to shun those who are outsiders… we need to recognize that we may be feeling disgust for those who are outsiders and overrule it.”

Conservative bioethicist Leon Kass famously claimed in a 1997 article that reactions of disgust can in sometimes be a very good moral guide: “in crucial cases… repugnance is the emotional expression of deep wisdom, beyond reason’s power fully to articulate it.” As examples of this he quoted our disgust at incest or cannibalism.

However, very few ethicists today subscribe to Kass’s theory. In a recent interview with the BBC Australian philosopher Steven Clarke dismissed Kass, saying that he sees “no convincing reason to think that disgust or any other emotion give us a profound insight into moral truth”.

Xavier Symons
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disgust
morality
repugnance