Disgust, Morality, and Negative Aesthetics

Disgust is a basic emotion that has served a useful purpose for our survival. Louise Fabiani explores this idea in her article, “Is Disgust Related to Morality?” While people have a natural caution when around too many people (physical crowds), that changes when we are connected to the crowd (psychological crowds) through religious observance or the common experience at a sporting event or rock concert. Our guard drops when we are among a psychological crowd. This is because the psychological crowd becomes part of our “in-group.”

Disgust, however, can arise in the presence of members of an out-group. People are more cautious, for example, around unfamiliar foods and customs. Early selection was aided by disgust, as people distanced themselves from perceived harm. But with the creation of this new in-group, people will be closer physically, share food and drink, and the feeling of being strangers disappears.

We are social animals who value amiability, cooperation, and trust. Yet certain circumstances do call for a little bit of standoffishness instead of unquestioning camaraderie.

Eating, Fabiani explains, is one of the riskiest things humans do. From a mild food poisoning to more serious conditions, humans evolved to have an aversion for things that could make them sick or kill them. There’s a reason rotten food looks and smells bad; that disgust (i.e., negative aesthetic experience) protects us from the bad consequences. Some have dubbed disgust the behavioral immune system because it prevents our biological immune system from having to work.

Fabiani explains that it isn’t a difficult leap from food habits to our moral life (i.e., how we treat others). Different dietary restrictions often correspond with purity. It’s difficult to not label someone as ‘impure’ who eats the food considered taboo. Transferring disgust to other human beings, notes Fabiani, has social and moral ramifications. What was once merely a useful adaptation, disgust can be utilized in unwarranted and harmful ways when applied to individuals or groups of people.

[Behavioral immune system] manifests as two strategies. The reactive one involves disgust and rejection. The other is proactive, consisting of cultural practices and guidelines (such as rituals and taboos), which require degrees of tribal conformity.

The behavioral immune system involves reactive and proactive strategies, which have aided human survival. While exercising extra caution may have been necessary in our past, exclusionary actions are used to keep sharp divisions between in-groups and out-groups. The fact that we have such a visceral reaction to foods we find disgusting demonstrates the power that taste possesses over our lives. And when negative aesthetic terms are transferred to types of people, it is not surprising that those people are met with greater adversity.

Through scientific and medical research, we have learned a lot about potential dangers from food, so we don’t have to rely solely on our feelings about how something looks. That still can be helpful. Taboos against things that are harmful can be a good thing, but there is often a mismatch, which needs to be mitigated another way. She points out that humans are a social species, so we can reconcile many differences, regardless of the size of the crowd, through a variety of methods.

The Mortar of Assimilation–And the One Element That Won’t Mix (1889) depicts anti-Irish sentiments that were typical of the period. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

On occasion, culture and evolution can agree on them, encouraging conformity through taboos. Sometimes there is a mismatch, and excessive disgust turns into moral judgment directed against members of an out-group.

It seems somewhat natural to favor similarities because they are considered safe for us, which is why assimilation is viewed as important. The United States, for example, was often called the “melting pot” because of the diversity of cultures represented by immigrants. In terms of people coming from different places, this was an apt description. But in terms of everyone blending together to alleviate differences as much as possible, the analogy falls apart.

We have enough knowledge to not fear people’s differences—or find them disgusting—for our survival, at least not in the same way as earlier humans. Being aware of our aversions is at least a good starting point for overcoming our potential disgust toward our out-groups. To conclude, Fabiani notes that disgust has been important, but sometimes it needs to be intentionally mitigated or controlled in order to avoid harming others by making them an out-group. While expanding our taste in food (or art, etc.), we can look to also expand our acceptance and understanding of others.

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