[Paleopsych] Guardian: To urgh is human

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To urgh is human

    Disgust is an adaptation for survival but what is the point of it now,
    asks Paul Bloom
    Thursday July 22, 2004

    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 microbiology".

    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.

    Children are prepared to do some learning, because while some things
    are universally dangerous, others vary according to the environment.
    This is particularly the case for animal flesh, and so in the first
    few years of life, children monitor what adults around them eat and
    establish the boundaries of acceptable (and hence non-disgusting)
    foods. By the time one is an adult the disgust reactions are fairly
    locked in, and it is difficult for most adults to try new foods,
    particularly new meats. (Most readers of this piece, for instance,
    would be queasy at the idea of eating grubs, cockroaches or dogs.)

    If disgust were limited to food, it would have little social
    relevance. But, as a perverse evolutionary accident, this emotion that
    evolved for our protection has turned on us - we can be disgusted by
    ourselves and others.

    The history of disgust is an ugly one. The philosopher Martha
    Nussbaum, who is the main critic of a disgust-based morality, observes
    that "throughout history, certain disgust properties - sliminess, bad
    smell, stickiness, decay, foulness - have repeatedly and monotonously
    been associated with Jews, women, homosexuals, untouchables,
    lower-class people - all of those are imagined as tainted by the dirt
    of the body".

    The Nazis evoked disgust by depicting Jews as vermin, as unclean and
    as engaging in filthy acts. Male homosexuals are an easy target here;
    Nussbaum points out that when she was involved in a trial concerning
    gay rights in Colorado, opponents of gay rights testified that gay men
    drank blood and ate faeces.

    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

    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.

    Does this conclusion go too far? Commenting on the sadistic abuse of
    Iraqi prisoners, George Bush expressed "deep disgust" and said the
    images made him sick to his stomach. This common reaction seems to be
    the right one; disgust is more apt than anger or dismay or even shame.
    In fact, disgust plays a double role here. Not only are the images of
    torture disgusting to those who view them - and their sexual nature
    plays no small role in this regard - but also part of the torture
    inflicted on the prisoners was their forced participation in acts they
    found revolting. Wouldn't the staunchest critic of disgust agree that
    here at least this emotion does tell us something about right and

    Not necessarily. What was wrong about Abu Ghraib had to do with the
    suffering of the prisoners and the sadism of those who caused this
    suffering. It would have been just as wrong if there were no visual
    record. It also would have been worse if the prisoners had been shot
    dead. But news of simple murder does not usually prompt disgust, and
    would never have led to the same sort of moral outrage. Even in cases
    like these, we are better off without the distraction of disgust.

    Paul Bloom is professor of psychology at Yale University. To buy
    Descartes' Baby: How child development explains what makes us human
    (Heinemann, £20), for £17 plus £1.99 p&p call Guardian Book Service
    0870 836 0875

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