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« Bolsen, Druckman & Cook working paper addresses critical issue in Science of #Scicom: What triggers public conflict over policy-relevant science? | Main | More on "cultural availability" & the Crickett... Ignored stories of "defensive use" (by children wielding the "Crickett" no less!) »

Is disgust "conservative"? Not in a Liberal society (or likely anywhere else)

This is a popular theme.

It is associated most prominently with the very interesting work of Jonathan Haidt, who concludes that "disgust" is characteristic of a "conservative" psychological outlook that morally evaluates behavior as intrinsically appropriate or inappropriate as opposed to a liberal one that focuses on "harm" to others.

Martha Nussbaum offers a similar, and similarly interesting account, portraying "disgust" as a sensibility that ranks people (or ways of living associated with them) in a manner that is intrinsically hierarchical.  Disgust has no role to play in the moral life of a modern democratic citizen, she concludes. 

But I can't help but thinking that things are slightly more complicated -- and as a result, possibly much more interesting! -- than this.

Of course, I'm thinking about this issue because I'm at least momentarily obsessed with the role that disgust is playing in public reactions to the death of a 2-year-old girl in Kentucky, who was shot by her 5-year-old brother who was "playing" with his "Crickett," a miniaturized but authentic and fully operational .22 caliber rifle marketed under the slogan "my first gun!"

The Crickett disgusts people. Or so they say-- over & over. And I believe them. I believe not only that they are experiencing a "negative affective reaction" but that what they are feeling is disgust.  Because I am experiencing that feeling, too, and the sensibility really does bear the signature elements of disgust.

I am sickened by the images featured in the manufacturer's advertising: the beaming, gap-toothed boy discovering a Crickett when he tears open a gift-wrapped box (likely it is his birthday; "the first gun" ritual is the "bar mitzvah of the rural Southern WASP," although he is at least 3 yrs south of 13); the determined elementary school girl taking aim with the model that has the pink faux-wood stock; the envious neighbor boy ("I wish I had one!"), whose reaction is geared to fill parents with shame for putting their son at risk of being treated as an outcast (yes, their son; go ahead & buy your tomboy the pink-stock Crickett, but if she prefers, say, to make drawings or to read about history, surely she won't be mocked and derided).

These images frighten me. They make me mad.  And they also truly—literally—turn my stomach.

I want to bury the Crickett, to burn it, destroy it. I want it out of my sight, out of anyone's, because I know that it--and what it represents--can contaminate the character, corrupt it.

I'm no "conservative" and neither is anyone else whom I observe (they are all over the place) expressing disgust toward the Crickett.

But of course, this doesn’t mean "liberals" (am I one? I suppose, though what passes for “liberal” in contemporary political discourse & a lot of scholarly discourse too is so philosophically thin and so historically disconnected that it demeans a real Liberal to see the inspired moral outlook he or she has inherited made to bear the same label. More on that presently) have forgotten the harm principle.

The harm guns cause to others-- just look at the dead 2 yr old girl in Kentucky, for crying out loud!--not the "disgust" they feel toward them is the reason they want to ban—restrict them!

Yes, and it's why they have historically advocated strict regulation (outright banning, if possible) of swimming pools, which are orders of magnitude more lethal for children . . . .

And why President Obama is trying so hard to get legislation passed that would get America out of the "war on drugs," the collateral damage of which includes many, many times more kids gunned down in public than died in Newtown. . . .

Look:  “liberals” want to enact background checks, ban assault rifles, prohibit carrying concealed handguns because they truly, honestly believe that these measures will reduce harm.

But they truly, honestly believe these things--despite the abundant evidence that such measures will have no meaningful impact on homicide, and are certain to do less than many many other things they ignore -- because they are disgusted by guns. 

We impute harm to what disgusts us; and we are disgusted by behavior that violates the moral norms that we hold in common with others and that define our understanding of the best way to live.

The "we" here, moreover, is not confined to "liberals."  

"Conservatives" are in the same motivated-reasoning boat. They are "disgusted" by all kinds of things--drugs, homosexuality, rap music (maybe even drones!).  But they say we should "ban"/"control" etc. such things because of the harms they cause.  

It's not characteristic of ordinary people who call themselves "conservatives"  that they see violation of "sacred" norms as a ground for punishing people independently of harm. Rather it's characteristic of them to see harm in what disgusts them. Just as "liberals" do! 

The difference between "liberals" and "conservatives" is in what they find disgusting, and hence what they see as harmful and thus worthy of legal restriction.

Or at least that is what many thoughtful scholars -- like Mary Douglas, William Miller, Roger Giner-Sorrolla, among others.

Our study of cultural cognition is, of course, inspired by this basic account, and although we haven't (so far) attempted to include observation and measurement of disgust or other identifiable moral sensibilities in our studies, I think our results are more in keeping with this position than with any that sees "conservativism" as uniquely bound up with "disgust" -- or with any that tries to explain the difference in the perceptions of risk of ordinary people with reference to moral styles that consciously place varying degrees of importance on "harm."

I wouldn't say, of course, that the Haidt-Nussbaum position (let's call it) has been "disproven" etc.  This work is formidable, to say the least! Whether there are differences in the cognitive and emotional processes of "liberals" and "conservatives" (as opposed to differences in the norms that orient those processes) is an important, difficult question that merits continued thoughtful investigation.

Still, it is interesting to reflect on why accounts that treat "liberals" as concerned with "harm" and "conservatives," alone, as concerned with or motivated by "disgust" are as popular as they are—not among psychologists or others who are able and who have made the effort to understand the nature of the evidence here but among popular consumers of such work who take the “take away” of it uncritically, without reflection on the strength of the evidence or cogency of the inferences to be drawn from it (this is sad; it is a reflection of a deficit in ordinary science intelligence).

Here's a conjecture: because we are all Liberals.  

I’m not using the term “Liberal” in this sense to refer to points to the left of center on the 1-dimensional right-left spectrum that contemporary political scientists and psychologists use to characterize popular policy preferences.

The Liberalism I have in mind refers to a distinctive understanding of relationship between the individual and the state. What’s distinctive about it, in fact, is that individuals comes first. The apparatus of the state exists to secure the greatest degree of equal liberty for individuals, who aside from their obligation to abide by laws that serve that end must be respected as free to pursue happiness on terms of their own choosing.

The great mass of ordinary people who call themselves “conservatives” in the US (and in Australia, in the UK, in France, Germany, Canada . . .) are as committed to Liberalism in this sense as are those call themselves “liberals” (although in fact, the great mass of people either don’t call themselves “conservative” or “liberal” or, if they do, don’t really have any particular coherent idea of what doing so entails). They are so perfectly and completely committed to Liberalism that they can barely really conceive of what it would look like to live in a political regime with a different animating principle.

The currency of disgust is officially valueless in the Liberal state’s economy of political justification. Under the constitution of the Liberal State, the offense one group of citizens experience in observing or knowing that another finds satisfaction in a way of life the first finds repulsive is not a cognizable harm.

We all know this—better, just are this, whether or not we “know” it; it’s in the nature of a political regime to make its animating principle felt even more than “understood.” And we all honestly believe that we are abiding by this fundamental principle when we demand that behavior that truly disgusts us—the practice of same-sex or polygamous marriage, the consumption of drugs, the furnishing of a child with a “Crickett,” and the like—be prohibited not because we find it revolting but because it is causing harm.

As a result, the idea that we are unconsciously imputing “harm” selectively to what disgusts us (or otherwise offends sensibilities rooted not in our commitment to avoiding harm to others but in our commitment to more culturally partisan goods) is unsettling, and like many unsettling things a matter we tend to discount.

At the same time, the remarkable, and everywhere perfectly obvious congruence of the disgust sensibilities and perceptions of harm formed by those who hold cultural and political commitments different from our own naturally suggests to us that those others are either attempting to deceive us or are in fact deceiving themselves via a process of unconscious rationalization.

This is in fact a process well known to social psychology, which calls it “naïve realism.”  People are good at recognizing the tendency of those who disagree with them to fit their perceptions of risk and other facts related to contested policy issues to their values and group commitments. Ordinary people are realists in this sense. At the same time, they don’t readily perceive their own vulnerability to the very same phenomenon. This is the naïve part!

Here, then, people with “liberal” political outlooks can be expected to credit work that tells them that “conservatives” are uniquely illLiberal—that “conservatives,” as opposed to “liberals,” are consciously or unconsciously evaluating behavior with a morality that is guided by disgust rather than harm.

All of this is separate, of course, from whether the work in question is valid or not. My point is simply that we can expect findings of that sort to be accepted uncritically by those whose cultural and political predispositions it gratifies.

Would this be so surprising?  The work in question, after all, is itself applying the theory of “motivated cognition,” which predicts this sort of ideologically selective assessment of the strength of empirical evidence.

Still, that motivated reasoning would generate, on the part of the public, an ideological slant in the disposition to credit evidence that ilLiberal sensibilities disproportionately guide the moral judgments of those whose ideology one finds abhorent (disgusting, even) is, as I indicated, only a conjecture. 

In fact, I view the experiment that I performed on cognitive reflection, ideology and motivated reasoning as effectively modeling this sort of process. 

But like all matters that admit of empirical assessment, the proposition that ideologically motivated reasoning will create support for the proposition that aspects of it—including the cognitive force of “disgust” in orientating perceptions of harm—is ideologically or culturally asymmetric is not something that can be conclusively established by a single empirical study—indeed, is not something that can ever be “conclusively” settled but rather a matter on which beliefs must always be regarded as provisional and revisable in light of whatever the evidence might show.

In the meantime, we can enjoy the excellent work of scholars like Haidt and Nussbaum, and the competing positions of theorists and empiricists like Miller, Douglas, and Giner-Sorrolla, as compensation for having to enduring the depressing spectacle of cultural polarization over matters like guns, climate change, nuclear power, the HPV vaccine, drugs, unorthodox sex practices. . . etc. etc.

(Some) references:

Douglas, M. Purity and danger; an analysis of concepts of pollution and taboo. (Praeger, New York,; 1966).

Giner-Sorolla, R. & Chaiken, S. Selective Use of Heuristic and Systematic Processing Under Defense Motivation. Pers Soc Psychol B 23, 84-97 (1997).

Giner-Sorolla, R., Chaiken, S. & Lutz, S. Validity beliefs and ideology can influence legal case judgments differently. Law Human Behav 26, 507-526 (2002).

Graham, J., Haidt, J. & Nosek, B.A. Liberals and conservatives rely on different sets of moral foundations. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 96, 1029-1046 (2009).

Gutierrez, R. & Giner-Sorolla, R. Anger, disgust, and presumption of harm as reactions to taboo-breaking Behaviors. Emotion 7, 853-868 (2007).

Haidt, J. & Graham, J. When Morality Opposes Justice: Conservatives Have Moral Intuitions that Liberals may not Recognize. Social Justice Research 20, 98-116 (2007). 

Haidt, J. & Hersh, M.A. Sexual morality: The cultures and emotions of conservatives and liberals. J Appl Soc Psychol 31, 191-221 (2001). 

Horvath, M.A.H. & Giner-Sorolla, R. Below the age of consent: Influences on moral and legal judgments of adult-adolescent sexual relationships. J Appl Soc Psychol 37, 2980-3009 (2007).

Kahan, D. Ideology, Motivated Reasoning, and Cognitive Reflection: An Experimental Study. CCP Working Paper No. 107 (2012).  

Kahan, D.M. The Cognitively Illiberal State. Stan. L. Rev. 60, 115-154 (2007). 

Kahan, D.M. The Progressive Appropriation of Disgust, in Critical America. (ed. S. Bandes) 63-79 (New York University Press, New York; 1999). 

Miller, W.I. The Anatomy of Disgust. (1997).

Nussbaum, M.C. Hiding from humanity: Disgust, Shame, and the Law. (Princeton University Press, Princeton, N.J.; 2004).

Robinson, R.J., Keltner, D., Ward, A. & Ross, L. Actual Versus Assumed Differences in Construal: "Naive Realism" in Intergroup Perception and Conflict. J. Personality & Soc. Psych. 68, 404-417 (1995).

Sherman, D.K., Nelson, L.D. & Ross, L.D. Naïve Realism and Affirmative Action: Adversaries are More Similar Than They Think. Basic & Applied Social Psychology 25, 275-289 (2003).


p.s. checkout the great bibliography of writings by the talented and prolific psychologist Yoel Inbar.


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Reader Comments (18)

Are there stable definitions of 'disgust' or 'revulsion' that work for different communities and cultures? Are there studies, using these definitions, that follow the 'disgust' responses of a thousand individuals as they grow older, move about the country, change jobs, or change friends? Basically, what is the time dependence of 'disgust', person by person, and not averaged over 'classes' of people. My guess is that the single time point averaging of 'classes' hides a lot of very useful results.

May 9, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterEric Fairfield

@Eric: This is a really good question. Moral psychologists have measures of disgust that they use for purposes of addressing how disgust sensibilities vary across groups that differ in ideology or otherwise. There's a big literature on it. But exactly how the measures have been validated is a matter I'm a bit hazy on. One reason this is important is that it's easy to respond to examples of the thing I'm pointing out here --people w/ liberal values saying "guns digust me!" -- by saying, "Oh, that's not really disgust..." But given how common it is for people to use "disgust" to descibe this sort of reaction in this sort of context, those who say "that's not really disgust" need to explain what's going on. How can they be sure that such expressiions aren't realy disgust? and if they aren't the kinds of reactions being picked up by their measures (I'm not sure whether or not they are), then why shouldn't we worry that that signifies the measures aren't valid-- that is, aren't really measuring accurately the phenomenon we are interested in?

I think this is a bigger problem for a philosopher like Nussbaum than for a psychologist like Haidt. Nussbaum's methods are highly interpretive; she has to worry that she is avoiding counteraruments by simply "defining" her way out of difficulty. Haidt and others are relying on evidence. They might still have a difficulty, certainly, but they are crateing a very fair target for otheres to take aim at in the dialectical process of conjecture & refuation (not to say Nussbaum is hiding behind conceptualism, but she should and Im' sure does worry that people who are trying to sort all this out will wonder what she would count as a disconfirmation of her position)

May 9, 2013 | Unregistered Commenterdmk38

"Disgust", when you start to look at it closely, is one of those odd sentiments. Physical disgust occurs universally and obviously, of course, over a number of things like excrement, literal filth, bodily fluids of strangers, etc. And moral disgust is also universal as a feeling that falls short of outrage at certain squalid sorts of behavior, such as hypocrisy, exploitation, or vice, variously defined. But now this is where some of the oddity arises, and we can see an example of this re: reactions to guns. Why, one wonders, should guns inspire "disgust" specifically? Because of their potential for harm, you say? But then why no similar disgust -- as distinct from a concern for safety -- at swimming pools, cars, knives, gas barbecues, etc.? It looks, in other words, as though there's more going on than simply a rational concern over harm. It does look as though "disgust" is being used here -- usually unconsciously perhaps, but sometimes perhaps disingenuously too -- to express and generate a moral disapproval at the symbol of another cultural lifestyle. And -- to address the "naive" side of that "naive realism" -- I think that for many on that "other" side of the cultural divide, regardless of their relationship to actual guns, the issue of guns has also become a kind of symbol, of individual self-defence and self-reliance.

May 9, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterLarry

Thanks for the feedback. At a deep level, I am building a decent model, neuron by neuron and synapse by synapse, of the brain. I am a molecular biochemist and geneticist. I view 'disgust' as one of a number of related outputs of a neural system, where these outputs are caused, for each person, by particular inputs.
I want to know how many distinct outputs are all called 'disgust' and how to relate these outputs to cellular inputs and to the internal processing of these inputs within a brain. As I get some feedback and pointers from Dan and the commenters, I may have a better idea of how to convert 'disgust' into cellular reactions and why the reaction is strong and stays strong for certain stimuli. We will see. Any pointers would be much appreciated.

May 9, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterEric Fairfield

A P.S. re: "disgust", conservatism, and Liberalism:

Your post seems to make an implicit argument along these lines: some people say that (moral) disgust is a peculiarly conservative characteristic; yet I feel disgust, and I'm not a conservative; therefore disgust must be a more universal characteristic. But maybe the problem is with the minor premise: perhaps you're more conservative than you think you are (and so, perhaps, are the many people who think that they're not only non-conservative but anti-conservative) -- conservative, that is, not in the current partisan sense but in a deeper predispositional sense.

Of course, as you say, there's a certain relativism operating here, and in a larger historical and cultural sense, America as a whole is more or less "Liberal" now. But within that relative frame there are nonetheless gradients, as the Cultural Cognition grid implies, and in terms of that grid, those designated EC appear to be less Liberal, or more conservative, than those on the left side of the grid, using "Liberal" in just the terms you use:

The Liberalism I have in mind refers to a distinctive understanding of relationship between the individual and the state. What’s distinctive about it, in fact, is that individuals comes first. The apparatus of the state exists to secure the greatest degree of equal liberty for individuals, who aside from their obligation to abide by laws that serve that end must be respected as free to pursue happiness on terms of their own choosing.

In this sense, then, people like Nussbaum particularly may be right that "disgust" is a more conservative moral response that sees one's moral judgments as inscribed in the nature of things. Disgust comes first, in other words, and then the rationale -- once in terms of sacred texts, now in terms of "harm" -- comes after. And then it can seem justifiable to use the state to enforce these moral judgments -- re, e.g.: guns, polygamy, drug use, consumerism, etc. -- contrary to the Liberal respect for individual difference.

May 10, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterLarry

"The Liberalism I have in mind refers to a distinctive understanding of relationship between the individual and the state. What’s distinctive about it, in fact, is that individuals comes first."

Isn't that a specifically Individualist position?

May 10, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterNiV

@NiV: Yes, Liberalism is individualistic. But the 'cultural styles' that feature individualism & communitarianism are intramural, in my view, to a Liberal political culture.

To start, as we conceptualize them, communitarians -- and hierarchs, egalitarians, and individualists too -- are all committed to visions of the best life & of human virtue. That doesn't mean they all believe those visions should be "imposed" on others or are necessarily acceptable guides for policymaking. I think people w/ these values -- even though they are not philosophers, and their cultural styles are not theorized philosophies -- will accept (feel) the basic division between private & public reason in a Liberal sense (as I tried myself to express it in the "follow up"). Confront them with a palpably ilLiberal verison of their own position -- one that says the state has a proper role in inculcating character dispositoins that fit their view and in banning behavior that denigrates their values regardless of its interference w/ secular goods -- and they will (most of them) dismiss it out of hand as illegitimate.

In addition, more "individuaist" & "communitarian" Liberals can disagree w/o putting their Liberal bona fides in doubt. Nozick and Rawls are Liberals; so are Barry Goldwater (or Ron Paul) and Lyndon Baines Johnson (Ted Kennedy). There are important differences -- over means (many of them turning on empirical issues about what sorts of private behavior impose externalities) and about how to regard certain uncontrolled contingencies (like the natural distribution of talents) that effect the distribution of secular goods (security, health, prosperity). But these are Liberals arguing amongst themselves.

May 10, 2013 | Unregistered Commenterdmk38


a. I don't mean my argument to be "I am disgusted," "I am a liberal," "therefore liberals feel disgust." That would be if not illogical at least uninteresting.

b. Rather, I mean, "I hold values that are distinctive -- the signature even-- of conventional political 'liberals,' such as support for gun control"; "my apprehension of phenomena that transgress those values & impel me to adopt a political stance on them are mediated by -- are perceived through disgust-- and I see that same thing all around me, all the time, in others who are 'liberals' "; "therefore, it seems untrue or at least implausible to me that 'disgust' is not a member of the inventory of moral sentiments that 'liberals' possess & use to make sense of what they observe when they take in the moral landscape."

c. Your point about the relationship between "disgust" and "harm" and "liberalism" is one I find more complicated. I think it is straightforward to say that someone who has a 'liberal' moral outlook -- of the sort that Haidt et al are trying to measure -- does in fact use disgust as a form of moral perception. I disagree, in other words, with Haidt on that. But is what the 'liberal' is seeing w/ his or her disgust necessarily insufficient from the point of view of Liberalism (the political philosophy, the regime type) to support legitimate regulation of the liberty of others? is it necessarily connected to threats to sectarian goods only & unconnected -- except via the distorting, false influence of ideiologically motivated reasoning -- to threats to secular ones?

I'm unsure. At one ponit I was pretty sure that 'disgust' was indispensable to the moral life of a Liberal citizen. Now I'm not so sure. the uncertainty has come w/ enlarged awareness of the dynamics of cultural cognition (as a species of ideologically motivated reasoning). I am, at any rate, convincted that cultural cognition creates a serious risk that a commitment someone ('liberal' or 'conservative' in these comicbook ways of characterizing Liberal's cultural styles) to Liberal principles can be undermined by the unconscious contribution that his or her disgust makes to that person's perceptions of thrats to secular goods of the kind that it is legitimate for a Liberal regime to use law to prevent.

May 10, 2013 | Unregistered Commenterdmk38

I wasn't trying to trivialize your argument, Dan, but just, as I saw it, make it more explicit. Thus my point still applies to your expanded statement in b) -- maybe, I'm suggesting, the others you see around you who are currently labelled "liberal" are in important ways more accurately viewed as "conservative". Of course, it's not the label as such that matters, it's the "important ways" -- meaning, in this case, a tendency to view one's moral judgments as written into the very nature of things, rather than as positions reached through, and hence changeable through, processes of reason, experience, and debate. And again, the difference involved here between conservative and Liberal tendencies is just a relative one, since everyone exhibits both characteristics to varying degrees. But this would help explain the otherwise odd (to my mind) extension of an emotion like disgust to an object like a gun. And it would, also to my mind, be consistent with the rise of an emotional morality within left/"progressive" politics in the last few decades that I'd associate with things like political correctness and identity politics, also frequently buttressed by strong negative emotions like disgust, fear, hate, contempt, etc. (a big reason why I personally moved away from such politics, though that's irrelevant).

To focus on a more specific question: how do you actually distinguish between sectarian and "secular" goods? Don't both HI's and EC's tend to assert that their particular views of moral goods and bads are secular?

May 10, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterLarry

I know you didn't mean to trivialize! you are much more pernicious than that; you try to complicate everything & usually succeed.
I think you see heterogeneity among "liberals" -- w/ some being genuinely Liberal & others being left-wing anti-liberal perfectionists. The former will not experience disgust in their moral assessments, and latter will. The latter will come off, too, as highly moralistic & judgmental in style. My own personal observation might be overrepresenting them in frequency relative to the real Liberals.
Perhaps this is so. Certainly I recognize what you are describing and how one might see what I see as fitting that; and my casual observations can't distinguish between that & what I described.
My sense, though, is that the "guns are disgusting" -- & racism, sexism too etc -- are part of moral life of people who aren't all that partisan & not necessarily taken up w/ left wing causes etc. But I'm not sure.If those people aren't using idiom of disgust, though, they also aren't really sophisticated enough, philosophically, to be what Nussbaum has in mind. I think Nussbaum's account,, moreoer, is not one really meant to be an account of public opiion in US or any other liberal mkt society; it is a normative defense of what she believes is a psychologically realistic account of the moral life of a good citizen in such a society. I question the psychological realism.

May 10, 2013 | Registered CommenterDan Kahan

Because of their potential for harm, you say? But then why no similar disgust -- as distinct from a concern for safety -- at swimming pools, cars, knives, gas barbecues, etc.?

Seriously? You see no qualitative difference in the context of guns causing harm and swimming pools causing harm - a difference that is associated with the "disgust' for guns?

It does look as though "disgust" is being used here -- usually unconsciously perhaps, but sometimes perhaps disingenuously too -- to express and generate a moral disapproval at the symbol of another cultural lifestyle.

I wouldn't doubt that is true to some extent, but it seems like a very insufficient explanation of cause and effect, IMO.

May 11, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJoshua

My sense, though, is that the "guns are disgusting" -- & racism, sexism too etc -- are part of moral life of people who aren't all that partisan & not necessarily taken up w/ left wing causes etc.

I don't doubt that. But, In a comparable way, "the 'abortion is disgusting' -- & polygamy, incest too etc -- are part of moral life of people who aren't all that partisan & not necessarily taken up w/ right wing causes etc.", either. But there's an obvious similarity in moral style, so to speak, and it's on that basis that I'd define them both as simply variants of a small-c conservatism as opposed to a big-L Liberalism. I think, in other words, that the "idiom of disgust" isn't a sign of sophistication at all -- except perhaps when it's used in a bad faith, disingenuous sort of way -- but rather just the opposite, a reliance on simple emotion and instinct. This isn't a matter of psychology, and I'm not questioning the reality that disgust (along with, as I said, other negative emotions) plays an active and forceful role in people's moral judgments -- indeed, as I said at the start, moral disgust is a human universal. It is rather a kind of meta-normative matter, or an assertion of an approach to moral judgments that strives to go beyond such emotionalism (and "go beyond" in a better sense than merely rationalizing it). That's the only way, as I see it, that diverse individuals can really be "respected as free to pursue happiness on terms of their own choosing", as you said in your admirable definition of Liberalism.

May 11, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterLarry

@Larry: I think your assessments are compelling.
I think, though, we should avoid calling all those who make active use of disgust in their moral perception "conservatives." They populate both sides of conventional political spectrum -- "liberal" & "conservative" -- as you are emphasizing. They might not be "Liberals" in the political philosophical sense -- you argue this too. But there is nothing "conservative" about the "liberal" members of this group. "Conservative" is likely not a very good category at all but it definitely is a confusing way to refer to *all* anti-liberals. Is Marx a conservative? "Anti-liberal" might be better.

May 11, 2013 | Registered CommenterDan Kahan

I think it is clear -- or it is clearly the proposition that we all seem to be accepting -- that "disgust" sensibilities are prior to perceptions of harm, cognitively speaking. So there would obviously be qualitative differences, as you say, in guns & pools. I don't think @Larry is saying otherwise -- he can speak for himself, of course. The question is why so much emphasis gets put in the end on the "harm" arguments & so little on "disgust" in "policy discourse"? There is some sort of filter that removes all the disgust & leaves only the "harm" -- & in fact results in a form of justification that disclaims reliance on aversion to the cultural significance of guns. Consider Obama. But there is really something maddening about seeing someone say 'I only care about the children!' who holds a fundraiser for gun control at an event that takes place around his swimming pool

May 11, 2013 | Registered CommenterDan Kahan

Yes, I agree that, under our political circumstances and conventions, referring to people who simply "make active use of disgust in their moral perception" (I'd add, "and rely upon it") as conservative is confusing, at the very least. I do feel that there's a deeper affinity with what I referred to as a kind of culturally (as distinct from merely politically) conservative predisposition, particularly as it contrasts with, following your usage, a Liberal dispostion, but that's probably another and longer story. For now, though, I just wanted to clarify that in referring to "conservative" I don't mean simply "anti-liberal" -- Marx was anti-liberal (or anti-Liberal), as you imply, but not, even in my expanded sense, a conservative (though he certainly manifested moral disgust).

And thanks for the clarification, in response to Johua, re: the issue of harm, with which I agree entirely.

May 12, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterLarry

An interesting critique of Haidt et al’s work is Tybur et al. @ Microbes, Mating, and Morality: Individual Differences in Three Functional Domains of Disgust.

May 18, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterIsabel Penraeth

Very useful article. I found the entire article and am working my way through it. Relevant to here, I hope to understand how 'disgust' is learned and reinforced.

May 18, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterEric Fairfield

Three thoughts
1. If part of the disgust response is genetically controlled and was selected for to guard against pathogens, then this response to external factors could be co-opted, epigenetically or culturally, for protection against new threats and to reinforce group norms. In this view, a number of new inputs can be learned so that disgust is the output to each.
2. Some of the referenced studies used WEIRD subjects (Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich and Democratic). A more insightful understanding of disgust might come from disgust studies using a broader subject population like those presented by Diamond in "The World Until Yesterday."
3. I would have liked the referenced article if the scientific logic were tighter.


May 18, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterEric Fairfield

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