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Disgust Redux (part 2 of 2)

Disgust is powerful, and powerfully negative. And I agree with Leon Kass that we should listen to our emotions when we analyze our moral vocabulary. My sense is, however, that even the most apparently unconditioned, natural, visceral reactions are shaped in part by cultural (and moral) expectations. In other words, it's not a one-way street from biology/nature/evolutionary adaption to culture and morality. We feel disgusted at least in part because of prohibitions and proscriptions.

Recall that I came to this debate because of the social-scentific claim that conservatives have a stronger sense of disgust than liberals (see for example: I am still deeply skeptical about this claim. But *even if* a correlation can be found between measurable reactions to disgusting stimuli on the one hand, and political ideologies on the other, what do we really have?

A simple answer is this: conservatives are "easily disgusted" not because of biological hardwiring but because of ideological influence. Perhaps it's simply the case that conservatives are less likely to trust the cultural and social encouragement to overcome what might be an initial negative reaction. This issue of trust goes back to what I mentioned about cuisine in an earlier post: most of us aren't born with adventuresome palates. An expansive sense of taste has to be taught, and this involves a deeper commitment of trust in two senses. One has to trust the teacher, and one has to trust the world. The risk has to have its reward. This is perhaps the "moral" point about an expansive and adventuresome palate: in overcoming an initial aversion to strange tastes (bitter, sour, umami) one gains comfort and even confidence about some of the rare joys that the world offers.

Cultivating confidence in this sense means overcoming disgust. I would suggest that this illuminates at least something about the split between conservatives and liberals.

About the Author

Robert Geroux is a political theorist.



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Maybe I'm totally imagining this but I remember reading a biography of Francis Xavier (1506-1552) that recounted a story about Francis tending to a man with infected sores on his back. One of the blistering sores broke open and the fluid covered Francis's hand. Francis was disgusted but suddenly felt guilty about finding another human being disgusting and, in defiance of his disgust, immediately stuck his pus-covered hand in his mouth. Ewww.

Anyways, I'm reminded of this story whenever I realize the the unlearning I must do in order to be a closer friend of Jesus of Nazareth (although I still don't advocate risking infections!). Jesus did things most people thought (and still think if they're honest) were disgusting: polluting himself in many various ways.

ISTM that the conservatives and the liberals oftenn have disgust for each other which is a result of their disgust with the others' political views. I suspect that such disgust causes much of the insulting on both sides.  I wonder whether anyone has ever studied the amounts of personal invective on political blogs.  That might tell us whether there is more conservative insulting going on than the liberal kind.

I agree that often apparently visceral, instinctive reactions are really sometihng more. When I was a very young, inexperienced community organizer trying to figure out strategies to address various problems, a more seasoned organizer was always telling me to "trust my gut".

I thought that was a really lame way to train someone (and it is a really lame way to train someone), but now that I have lot more experience with life, oddly, I am very comfortable "trusting my gut" in decisionmaking.   But when I do this, I'm pretty sure it's not instinct, just the computer in my head processing a lot of info on some level I'm not aware of.

Malcolm Gladwell's "Blink" gives a lot of  interesting examples of how people come to the right decision seemingly without thinking about it.

My gut tells me now, though, that one's political ideology wouldn't be much of an indicator of one's disgust level. 

There has been a lot of work done by neuroscientists on "unconscious thinking" (an oxymoron if ever there was one).  They found that there is indeed a lot of evidence that the brain registers conscious events (what we used to call "memories"?), and that when there is a lot of data about a certain topic, the brain somehow puts it in some sort of order. 

The upshot is that when we need to think again about certain data/recall memories, that IF we have a lot of memories about a certain topic, then we think more efficiently/correctly about it than if we have only a few memories.  People who do not have a lot of data about the subject do not do as well.  The moral is: trust your gut when you have a lot  knowledge of a topic -- it will probably be better than the judgment of an inexperienced non-expert.  (In the old days we would have said that experience counts.)

I've read that some people *literally* have gut reactions when thinking about a possible judgment, but I don't know if much work has been done on this subject.


On thought that helps explain our reactions, but especially conservative reactions. The thought pattern goes this way: If it is new, it must be wrong...if it is wrong, it must be bad...if it is bad, it must be dangerous...if it is dangerous, it must be attacked and destroyed.

William T. --

I suspect some liberals hold the opposite of that :  If it is *old*, it must be wrong...if it is wrong, it must be bad .  .  .  .  .  .


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