Morality and Disgust

I recently attended the 17th annual European Association of Social Psychology Conference in Amsterdam. I listened to so many great symposiums, but one in particular has stayed in my mind. It was titled: Does moral disgust really respond to harm and unfairness? Perspectives and resolutions. This symposium featured many leading academics in the area of disgust and morality, including Roger Giner-Sorolla, Pascale Sophie Russell, Hanah Chapman, Joshua M. Tybur, and Jason Clark.

All the presentations were very informative and interesting, but perhaps the take-away message of the symposium as a whole is that disgust is a tricky moral emotion that is difficult to define and predict. We used to solely association disgust with an avoidance motivation (or a desire to move away from a stimulus) and also with violations in the purity domain (like bodily purity, pathogen avoidance, or religious observances), but one goal of this symposium was to introduce the idea that we may also experience disgust to violations of fairness and harm, in addition to purity. Colloquially speaking, you might express moral disgust when you hear about people wasting food when others have none and are starving (fairness) or feel disgust when you hear that others are bullied (harm).

I felt very motivated by the diversity and variety of the emotion of disgust and about how much more there is to know and study. I will certainly be doing some disgusting reading and thinking about ways to add it to my research!

I’ll leave you with this quote from Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises.

“I liked to see him [Mike] hurt Cohn. I wished he would not do it, though, because afterward it made me feel disgusted at myself. That was morality; things that made you disgusted afterward. No, that must be immorality.”

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