"Recruited for moral judgments"

Earlier this week in the Toronto Star John Sakamoto (who I thought wrote music…but whatever) did a brief story about Cornell research entitled “Morality rooted in disgust“:

Researchers at Cornell University tested a group of people from politically mixed swing states for both their political ideology and their “disgust sensitivity.”

“Participants who rated higher in disgust sensitivity were more likely to oppose gay marriage and abortion, issues that are related to notions of morality or purity,” a Cornell news release concluded.

“People have pointed out for a long time that a lot of our moral values seem driven by emotion, and in particular, disgust appears to be one of those emotions that seems to be recruited for moral judgments,” said study leader David Pizarro, an assistant professor of psychology at Cornell.

I’d never thought of it this way, or rather never would have guessed that such a correlation existed, but it makes sense. I think this is a big reason why liberals get so frustrated when arguing with conservatives, and vice versa. If one side is arguing based primarily on emotional response, and the other primarily on logic (or, at the very least, less emotion; I took the inverse reaction to mean logic, but may have overstepped…in any case I consider logic by no means guaranteed to be any more “correct” than emotion, misused as it often is) then the two are not only unlikely to agree, but may have trouble even understanding where the other is coming from.

The lead researcher does, however, caution against using disgust as a core influence of morality:

“Disgust really is about protecting yourself from disease. It didn’t really evolve for the purpose of human morality.

“It clearly has become central to morality, but because of its origins in contamination and avoidance, we should be wary about its influences,” Pizarro said.

The authors explain a bit further:

As Martha Nussbaum has pointed out in her treatment of the topic, “… 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.” (Nussbaum, 2001, pg. 347)…Whether or not moral disgust can be of value in keeping people from committing unethical deeds remains an open question, but given the amount of damage disgust is capable of inflicting on innocent people, at the very least it seems as if we should be careful to monitor its influence in the courtroom, in public policy decisions, and in our everyday interactions with others.

This makes the thought of conservative (socially conservative, not fiscally conservative) lawmakers and so-called “moral” leaders very worrying. Disgust is a very subjective concept, and says as much or more about the judges as about those who would be judged. I fear the consequences of laws and moral judgments with such dubious, irrational origins.