Are you someone who squirms when confronted with slime, shudders at stickiness or gets grossed out by gore? Do crawly insects make you cringe or dead bodies make you blanch?
If so, chances are you're more conservative -- politically, and especially in your attitudes toward gays and lesbians -- than your less-squeamish counterparts, according to two Cornell studies.
The results, said study leader David Pizarro, Cornell assistant professor of psychology, raise questions about the role of disgust -- an emotion that likely evolved in humans to keep them safe from potentially hazardous or disease-carrying environments -- in contemporary judgments of morality and purity.
This press release doesn't explain how the link between conservatism and feelings of disgust is based, at least in part, on theories of an academic in Virginia named Jonathan Haidt.
I've written about this guy before: Moral neuropolitics and ideology. His pet theory is that morality in general arises out of several human characteristics that can be explained by evolutionary psychology (EP). While it is true that EP can be taken too far in "explaining" human nature, I think it also has a lot of validity and if used carefully it can give real scientific explanations for some things.
The problem I have with Haidt's theories is not because of EP. Rather it's because he singles out three evolved traits that he believes influence conservative theories of morality yet are generally disregarded in liberal theories. One of these traits is a serious concern about "purity" – which sort of means an aversion to "disgusting" things, without an attempt to provide reasonable justification for the feeling in specific situations (such as homosexuality).
Haidt thinks this suggests liberal theories of morality are inadequate. I think that he's wrong. It does not seem to me that just because a trait evolved in humans (when social and physical conditions were vastly different from those of the present) it follows that such traits should be important influences on morality under current conditions.
Further, not only are these inherited traits unreliable guides for moral theories, but they are insufficient to provide good foundations for moral principles that are important in modern conditions – such as concern for the welfare of the environment, aversion to warfare, and the need for limitations on exploitative behavior of elites. However, all this is a discussion for another time.
Returning to the research described at the top, it's reassuring that the investigators shared my concerns about the role of "purity" in moral judgment:
Liberals and conservatives disagree about whether disgust has a valid place in making moral judgments, Pizarro noted. Conservatives have argued that there is inherent wisdom in repugnance; that feeling disgusted about something -- gay sex between consenting adults, for example -- is cause enough to judge it wrong or immoral, even lacking a concrete reason. Liberals tend to disagree, and are more likely to base judgments on whether an action or a thing causes actual harm. ...
The research speaks to a need for caution when forming moral judgments, Pizarro added. "Disgust really is about protecting yourself from disease; it didn't really evolve for the purpose of human morality," he said. "It clearly has become central to morality, but because of its origins in contamination and avoidance, we should be wary about its influences."
Conservatives Are More Easily Disgusted (6/4/09) – LiveScience.com
Links to this post: