Houston DUI lawyer Paul Kennedy, in Going for the Gut, calls to our attention this Boston Globe article by Drake Bennett about how disgust may shape our moral judgments.

A few thoughts:

First, one of the experiments discussed:

In one study, [psychologist Jonathan Haidt] had some of his unfortunate test subjects respond to four vignettes related to moral judgment while sitting in a room that had been infused with an ammonium sulfide “fart spray.” The stink, he found, made them harsher judges, not only of body-related questions like whether first cousins should be able to have sex and marry, but whether people should drive to work when they could walk or whether a movie studio should release a morally controversial film.

. . . seems to mesh well with this one (h/t Houston criminal-defense lawyer Sarah V. Wood):

People are unconsciously fairer and more generous when they are in clean-smelling environments, according to a soon-to-be published study led by a Brigham Young University professor.

The research found a dramatic improvement in ethical behavior with just a few spritzes of citrus-scented Windex.

Second, Paul writes:

Dr. Haidt also points out that we are unique in the animal kingdom for our feelings of "disgust" toward certain foods, items or events. While other animals dislike the taste of certain things, we find ourselves disgusted at the notion of eating things such as brains, testicles and other innards.

This implies that our feelings of disgust are innate, and is not entirely accurate. Haidt points out that we are unique in the animal kingdom for our feelings of disgust, full stop. While some of us find ourselves disgusted at the notion of eating things like brains, testicles, and other innards, disgust toward those certain things is by no means a feeling shared by all cultures.

(The notion that we are the only animals that feel disgust is not universally accepted. Psychology and Biology professor Judith A. Toronchuk and Applied Mathematics professor George F.R. Ellis write in Morality, Disgust and the Territorial Imperative:

We have argued elsewhere that disgust is a basic emotional operating program evolved in lower vertebrates as a protective mechanism to prevent contact with or ingestion of disease-producing material. (Toronchuk & Ellis, 2007a, b).  The DISGUST system arose phylogenetically in response to danger to the internal milieu from pathogens and their toxic products. Our proposal was prompted by the recognition that the innate immune system predates the nervous system and all multicellular organisms have mechanisms for rejection and/or elimination of microbes and parasites. These mechanisms which originally provided defense by regulating consummatory behaviours gave rise to a primary emotional system which facilitates evaluation of reinforcers and functions to motivate avoidance Disgust, according to Rozin, Haidt and colleagues (Rozin & Fallon 1987; Haidt, Rozin, McCauley, & Imada, 1997) is more than avoiding bad taste; it hinges on avoidance of contamination. Distasteful things are not always disgusting nor are disgusting things necessarily distasteful.


Third, after describing the processing of a jury panel by the government, Paul asks:

What emotions would you imagine that juror is feeling as the prosecutor begins his opening statement? And how might those emotions affect any moral judgments that juror might make during the trial?

These are questions for trial lawyers: If we want our jurors to be fair, rather than harsh (we CDLs do), how do we keep them from feeling disgusted? (For prosecutors, "make jurors disgusted" might replace Kelly Siegler's "make jurors afraid.") And what disgusts them, anyway?

I was first introduced to Jonathan Haidt's ideas by an interview with Haidt in philosopher Tamler Sommers's A Very Bad Wizard, a collection of nine interviews with thinkers about morality and ethics. In another interview in the same book, experimental philosopher Stephen Stich compares moral judgments to aesthetic disgust:

Commonsensically, people think certain activities or foods are disgusting. My tastes run fairly low on the disgust scale: relatively few things disgust me. But one of the things that does is a South American beverage called chicha. Chicha is a fermented beverage, a bit like beer, prepared using human spit. What am I inclined to think about chicha? Well, I think it's disgusting. And the phenomenology, how it appears to me, is that the disgustingness is something about the chicha. I'm just detecting it. But of course, the people for whom this is a favorite beverage find nothing disgusting about it. So let's look more closely at this. Is it plausible that they're wrong and I'm right? Is they're something they're missing here? Are these South Americans just confused somehow, unaware of how disgusting chicha is? Well, no, that's not what's going on, in spite of the fact that it seems to me that there's something objectively disgusting about chicha.

Haidt, like Stich, thinks that moral judgment is like aesthetic judgment: "Whatever is true of aesthetic judgment is true of moral judgment, except that in our moral lives we do need to justify, whereas we don't generally ask others for justifications of aesthetic judgments." He goes on to say, "Moral facts emerge out of who we are in interaction with the people in our culture."

Haidt's position is that everyone is morally motivated, and that we would do well to recognize that people who disagree with us are morally motivated. He identifies five foundations of our moral sense: intuitions about Harm, about Fairness, about Authority, about Loyalty, and about Purity).

In A Very Bad Wizard Sommers talked with Haidt about an investigation into what Haidt called "moral dumbfounding":

He presents scenarios designed to evoke strong moral responses ("It's wrong!"), but ones that are hard to justify rationally. (Examples include: having sex with a chicken carcass you're about to eat, wiping your toilet with a national flag, and, as we'll see, brother-sister incest.)
. . . .
TAMLER SOMMERS: . . . You do an experiment where you present five scenarios to a subject and get their reaction. One of these scenarios describes a brother and a sister—Julie and Mark—vacationing in the south of France. They have some wine, one thing leads to another, and they decide they want to have sex. They use two different kinds of contraception and enjoy it, but they decide not to do it again. How do people react to this, and what conclusions do you draw from their reactions?
JONATHAN HAIDT: People almost always start out by saying it's wrong. Then they start to give reasons. The most common reasons involve genetic abnormalities or that it will somehow damage their relationship. But we say in the story that they use two forms of birth control, and we say in the story that they keep that night as a special secret and that it makes them even closer. So people seem to want to disregard certain facts about the story. When the experimenter points out these facts and says, "Oh, well, sure, if they were going to have kids, that would cause problems, but they're using birth control. So would you say that it's okay?" And people never say, "Ooh, right, I forgot about the birth control. So then it is okay." Instead, they say, "Oh, yeah. Huh. Well, okay, let me think."
So what's really clear, and you can see it in the videotapes of the experiment, is: people give a reason. When that reason is stripped from them, they give another reason. When the new reason is stripped from them, they reach for another reason. And it's only when they reach deep into their pockets for another reason, and come up empty-handed, that they enter the state we call "moral dumbfounding." Because they fully expect to find reasons. They're surprised when they don't find reasons. . . . [I]t's a cognitive state where you "know" that something is morally wrong, but you can't find reasons to justify your belief.

Not everyone's morality is built on all five foundations and, as the moral dumbfounding experiment illustrates, morality is not the servant of reason, but its master. We use reason not to decide what is moral, but to try to convince others (a fool's errand, if they also do not use reason to decide what is moral?).

If moral judgment is like aesthetic judgment, and if moral facts emerge in interaction with our culture without rational basis, then, while there may well be a cross-cultural moral baseline, we can't discover by reference to our own morals alone where that baseline lies.

Next: the Five Foundations.

8 responses to “Mmmmm…Chicha!”

  1. Trouble is, moral judgment isn’t like aesthetic judgment, and the world would be far better off with fewer people operating under the delusion that it is. (Whether those are “progressives” who confuse the relativity of aesthetics for the absolutes of morality, or “conservatives” who confuse disgust with immorality, it’s fundamentally the same problem.)

  2. It’s posts like this that make me feel very comfortable with my lack of compulsion to explain or justify things that disgust me. It’s sufficient that it does.

  3. Jonathan Haidt rocks! Have you read his whole ‘The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom’? In it, he lays out his research findings that support his ‘five axes of morality’ schema. I liked it so well that, after I’d finished it and I lost my copy, I went and bought another.

    IANAL, but I think there’s a whole lot of Haidt’s insights that would be very useful to a defense lawyer. Especially to a liberal, secular defense lawyer who is having a hard time getting into the heads of conservative jurors.

    Also, Rod Dreher does a great job of examining the Cordoba Mosque controversy. He uses Haidt’s work as a starting point for “Disgust and the Ground Zero Mosque.”

    • Pinker attributes that scenario to Haidt.

      Interesting line in the Pinker article:

      The moral sense, we are learning, is as vulnerable to illusions as the other senses. It is apt to confuse morality per se with purity, status and conformity.

      That doesn’t seem quite right to me.

  4. Still stewing on the meat of your post, but I have my own personal experience with chicha. While hiking in Peru on the way up to Macchu Picchu, our guide told us that when the locals have chicha available for sale, they tie a flag (or plastic bag) on top of a long pole and put it outside their houses. After a couple days of hiking, I got curious enough to try some. It is indeed, chewed corn (usually by married and elder women) spit back into a pot, where it is covered and fermented. There is also usually a shared glass or wooden bowl used to serve chicha. Of our group of 15 fairly adventurous members, I was the only one who partook. Cloudy, a little sweet, but mostly nasty, with a gunpowder finish. It added a little buzz to the hike. But it also meant three days on the communal camp toilet.

    So maybe when it comes to chicha it’s not just digust, but fear of a very real (and painful) danger, that comes into play. At least for American tourists with no antibodies for Peruvian bacteria.

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