Saturday 18 June 2011

Moral Disgust III: The Perverse

There's one last feature of moral disgust that might be worth exploring. It has to do with desire.

An up-and-coming theory in moral psychology says that we can make three morally relevant judgments on any behavior: the desire of the actor, the action he or she actually took, and what the consequences are. For example, someone might want to do something that hurts someone (bad desire), nonetheless carries out an action to help them (good action), but without meaning it, that helpful action actually backfires and hurts the person (bad consequences).

What this research tends to find, with a few exceptions and glitches, is that people tend to base recommendations about punishment and reward on consequences; base judgments of the action on what the action did; and base judgments of the person's character on his or her desire.

WHH: big in Japan
I want to focus on this link between character and desires because disgust, responding to people as "things" rather than actors, seems to have a link to desire. Those who are aficionados of weird literature know of William Hope Hodgson, and maybe have read what I consider his best story, The Voice in the Night. Without giving away too much, at one point one of the characters in the story gives in to a physical need that he knows will doom his humanity. What is particularly horrifying about this is the desire with which he succumbs to this temptation - "immediately filled with an inhuman desire" in Hodgson's words - and his struggle and self-loathing.

Meanwhile, on the social science side, some colleagues and I have been running a study that, if it works out, will back up some ideas we had about they way people can be seenless than fully human based on the emotions they feel ... well, now that the corpus callosum between the gamer and psych sides of my brain has fully fused, I can present this to you guys as a fully fledged villain-ology.

There is the Misguided Villain, who has the full range of human emotions - including the ability to feel disgust, remorse, hope. This one may be doing the wrong thing, but has the right desires.

There's the Animalistic Villain, with none of the higher emotions, only the bestial ones - lust, anger, fear, pleasure.

There's the Mechanistic Villain, with no emotions at all. Perfectly rational, with cruelty only as a side effect.

Finally, and most relevant, there's the Perverse Villain. This one has all the emotions but feels them at the wrong times: joy at people's suffering, disappointment at their success. This is the classic stage villain, and the one who most forcefully reveals the wrong desires that I suspect lead to moral disgust.

Horror - fear and disgust - both these emotions compel someone to flee. The more distance you put between yourself and the scary or disgusting thing, the more the emotion subsides. The horror of desire - of sweet-smelling corruption, of the desirable body with the skeleton face - is that you willingly bring yourself closer to the vile thing. But the vile thing is not so disturbing as what your self-conscious mind reveals about you. You are perverse. Your desire is corrupt. Like Hodgson's castaway, you yourself are the monster.

Do I use this in my campaign? Well, my players may remember an amorphous thing with mouths in the cellar of the millhouse ... a thing that radiated a smell of honey and fresh meat.


  1. Interesting series of posts!

  2. You are the research arm of the OSR! ;)

  3. Everything is better with Matango! (Or is that more disgusting?)