X-Message-Number: 24481
Date: Sat, 07 Aug 2004 21:59:28 -0500
From: Randy Smith <>
Subject: The irrationality of disgust 
References: <>

Some excerpts from an article relevant to cryonics:

What, precisely, is so bad about sex between adult siblings, bestiality, 
and the eating of corpses? Most people insist such acts are morally 
wrong, but when psychologists ask why, the answers make little sense. 
For instance, people often say incestuous sex is immoral because it runs 
the risk of begetting a deformed child, but if this was their real 
reason, they should be happy if the siblings were to use birth control - 
and most people are not. One finds what the social psychologist Jonathan 
Haidt called "moral dumbfounding", a gut feeling that something is wrong 
combined with an inability to explain why.

Haidt suggests we are dumbfounded because, despite what we might say to 
others and perhaps believe ourselves, our moral responses are not based 
on reason. They are instead rooted in revulsion: incest, bestiality and 
cannibalism disgust us, and our disgust gives rise to moral outrage.

Some see disgust as a reliable moral guide. Leon Kass, chairman of the 
President's commission on bioethics, wrote an article in 1997 called 
"the wisdom of repugnance" where he concedes that this revulsion is "not 
an argument", but then goes on to argue: "In some crucial cases, 
however, it is the emotional expression of deep wisdom, beyond wisdom's 
power completely to articulate it." This conclusion has practical 
implications: Kass argues that the idea of human cloning is disgusting, 
and he sees this as good reason to ban it. Some from both sides of the 
political spectrum, would agree.

Disgust has humble origins. At root, it is a biological adaptation, 
warding us away from ingesting certain substances that could make us 
sick. This is why faeces, vomit, urine and rotten meat are universally 
disgusting; they contain harmful toxins. We react strongly to the idea 
of touching such substances and find the notion of eating them worse. 
This Darwinian perspective also explains why we see disgusting 
substances as contaminants - if some food makes even the slightest 
contact with rotting meat, for instance, it is no longer fit to eat. 
After all, the microrganisms that can harm us spread by contact, and so 
you not only should avoid disgusting things, you should avoid anything 
that the disgusting things make contact with. For these reasons, the 
psychologist Steven Pinker has described disgust as "intuitive 

Some of our disgust is hard-wired, then. This does not mean babies 
experience disgust. They are immobile and it would be a cruel trick of 
evolution to have them lie in perpetual self-loathing, unable to escape 
their revolting bodily wastes. But when disgust first emerges in young 
children, it is a consequence of brain maturation, not early experience 
or cultural teaching.


Disgust is not entirely sordid. It can be used as well to motivate a 
spiritual existence, by eliciting a negative reaction to our material 
bodies. St Augustine, for instance, was influenced by Cicero's vivid 
image of the Etruscan pirate's torture of prisoners by strapping a 
corpse to them, face to face. This, Augustine maintained, is the fate of 
the soul, chained to a physical body as one would be chained to a 
rotting corpse.

You cannot talk someone out of disgust. But it can be defeated by other 
emotions. After Stephen Fry outlines what he sees as the disgusting 
nature of sexual intimacy - "I would be greatly in the debt of the man 
who could tell me what would ever be appealing about those damp, dark, 
foul-smelling and revoltingly tufted areas of the body that constitute 
the main dishes in the banquet of love" - he notes that sexual arousal 
can override our civilised reticence: "Once under the influence of the 
drugs supplied by one's own body, there is no limit to the indignities, 
indecencies, and bestialities to which the most usually rational and 
graceful of us will sink."

Love can have a similar effect - consider a parent changing a child's 
diaper, or the Catholic depictions of saints cleaning the wounds of lepers.

Disgust can also fade as it begins, through association and imagery, 
through positive depictions of once-reviled objects. In the 1960s, most 
Americans and Europeans disapproved of interracial marriage, and 
revulsion at such couplings played no small role. This has changed 
considerably, as has the reaction to homosexual relationships. It is not 
abstract argument driving this change in cultural values; it is Queer 
Eye for the Straight Guy.

The irrationality of disgust suggests it is unreliable as a source of 
moral insight. There may be good arguments against gay marriage, 
partial-birth abortions and human cloning, but the fact that some people 
find such acts to be disgusting should carry no weight.


more here:


Randy S.

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