Friday, 10 June 2011

Moral Disgust I: The Body

One theme of my lab's research that is smashing into print in a esoteric, university-library-only journal near you this year (4 papers out or in press, 3 more under review) is the distinction between moral anger and moral disgust.

Two of Paul Ekman's research faces.
The first thing to recognize is that anger and disgust correlate highly across moral situations. So, if someone sees something and says they're "disgusted" they're also likely to say they're "angry." A less finicky language might just call both emotions of moral condemnation something like "outrage" and leave it like that.

Except what people call "disgust" also seems different for different kinds of outrage. What our research tends to find, using carefully varied scenarios, is that moral violations that involve harm or unfairness attract high levels of anger, and a kind of "disgust" that's very highly related to anger. But when you factor out the effects of anger, disgust really stands on its own mainly as a visceral response to moral codes about the use of the body.

In other words:
  • I tell you about greedy corrupt politicians - and you may say you are disgusted, but go "grrr".
  • I tell you about someone who has cloned his or her own muscle cells in order to eat a consensual, harmless, ethically sourced human steak - now you say you're disgusted, and go "yuck" - nobody is harmed, so you only go "grrr" a little - but importantly, most people (not all) feel there's something morally wrong about this technical cannibalism.
Jack Chick's "Gay Blade"
We came up with examples like the human steak to test, even for the most liberal of our respondents, the true limit of moral tolerance. If you're liberal and you want to know how conservative people feel about sexual immodesty or same-sex marriage, think about your own reaction to the human steak. Nobody's rights are violated, but there's a sense of wrong about it.

Back to imaginative literature and gaming. There's a tendency, most pronounced in works that aspire to  "epic" or "traditional" storytelling, to stack the deck with both moral anger and moral disgust - and to help that along with liberal lashings of physical disgust. Think of Frank Herbert's Baron Harkonnen, with his boils (physical disgust), catamites (moral disgust) and underhanded cruelty (moral anger/disgust/outrage). That works, if the reader plays along with the assumptions of the work. If the reader doesn't, this all-in-one moral universe becomes a nagging flaw. I mean, I love me some Jack Vance and in particular Lyonesse, but damn if "queer = villain" doesn't get tiresome in that series.

The body is often also moralized, and overlaid with disease and deformity arguments, to feed a dehumanizing and xenophobic political agenda. Just one very obvious example: the Nazi caricature of Jews encompassed disgust at alleged physical uncleanliness, strange dietary practices, physical abnormality, and sexual licentiousness. All this came to a sharp and pointed end with the final accusation to justify the Holocaust; Jews were not just gross but dangerous and malicious. Indeed, some of our recent unpublished studies implicate fear and moral anger, as well as disgust, in the tendency to dehumanize members of other social groups.

Yeah, yeah, so fantasy heroes are little Nazis slaughtering orcs. We've all heard that before, so that even the counter-cliche itself is at risk to get worn out. In my creations, I'd prefer to keep to hand the power of bodily-moral disgust, avoiding both cliches, letting the audience draw its own conclusions. These strange customs, they are weird and gross; the high priest marries his sister, ritual scars are salted to a fine purple hue, here's a feast to which everyone contributes a slice of their own flesh. Are these marks of villainy, or of mere strangeness? Our explorers of the unknown have signed up for encounters with both, in any event, and the interpretation is up to them.


  1. I have little to add other than to say I've been greatly enjoying this series of posts.

  2. Is it wrong that I now want a steak?

    Regardless, this is good reading!

  3. I'm wondering if early modern travel literature is of any use or interest to you: the myth-making that native savages are cannibals, or that they only lust after white meat. The tropes of getting lost in the outback, of making illicit bargains that are marked as wrong by their disgusting aspects, the ways narrators show that there's a trap in their apparent tropical paradises...

    Really, really interesting post. Also really interesting to think about which universal taboos are left. Perhaps it's because I've been reading less fiction recently, but I don't see so many stories these days that are about philosophical points of disgust - utopias spoiled by one terrible detail, that sort of thing. They seemed to be a big mid-century thing, maybe prompted by WW2: I wonder if there was a consciousness then that Nazism showed that societal disgust could not be relied upon as a brake on behaviour?

    I'm also wondering how far you get into milder or more abstract kinds of wrongness, the uncanny. The sense of outrage some people have at different spelling.

    I realise none of what I'm talking about lends itself to being attested in any kind of scientific way.

  4. also, not wanting to drag you against your will into the current group snit about "evil," but your post makes me think ("woeful atheist" that I am), that maybe for RPG discussion purposes evil could be defined as that which causes moral disgust?

    Although if we do define it as such, that definition probably won't help in the snit.

  5. @Richard: Maybe the decline in that kind of fiction had to do with the end of colonialism, too? I dunno. You mention esthetic disgust which is something I will get around to (and is very relevant to edition wars!) Likewise, you are one step ahead of me in your definition of evil, though there's a couple of intermediary steps between disgust and evil.