Moral views fed by disgust?

August 27, 2010
By tomsander

Flickr photo by A Single Atom

Drake Bennett has an interesting piece in the Boston Sunday Globe entitled “Ewwwwwwwww!: The surprising moral force of disgust.”  Bennett cites various psychologists and philosophers that moral judgments come neither directly from God, nor from our reasoning, but from some innate sense of disgust.

Excerpt: “Research has shown that people who are more easily disgusted by bugs are more likely to see gay marriage and abortion as wrong. Putting people in a foul-smelling room makes them stricter judges of a controversial film or of a person who doesn’t return a lost wallet. Washing their hands makes people feel less guilty about their own moral transgressions, and hypnotically priming them to feel disgust reliably induces them to see wrongdoing in utterly innocuous stories.”

The idea seems intuitively interesting, but I’m hard pressed to make sense of how this notion of morality might account for dramatically changing views about gays, to cite one example.  Granted that much of this social change in gay attitudes over time has been “Generational Secession” rather than individual change.  [This means that most of the change doesn’t come from individual Americans changing their views over time but by younger generations on average having much more tolerant views of gays than older generations, and thus as the older generations die off, the composition of American views changes. Although even with gays, there has been a slight recent conservative backlash toward the Sixties: Among eighteen to twenty-nine-year-olds the view that homosexuality was “always wrong” rose from 62 percent in 1974 to 79 percent in 1987.]  While the increased liberalization towards attitudes toward gays has been significant across the map,  the liberalization has been stronger among non-evangelicals than among evangelical Christians.

But, how do we explain with this “moral disgust” theory why, for example, roughly two-thirds of Americans thought that homosexuality was always wrong and, now less than one in two does?    If this moral disgust theory is going to be useful to understanding the world, it will have to help explain how our disgust changes over time (either in the same individuals or across society).
For more on these revolutions in American religious and moral values see Chapter 4 of American Grace (Simon & Schuster, October 2010).


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