Sunday, September 19, 2004

Moral Emotions: the 'yuk factor'

Paul Bloom observes that people often confuse the disgusting with the immoral:
What, precisely, is so bad about sex between adult siblings, bestiality, and the eating of corpses? Most people insist such acts are morally wrong, but when psychologists ask why, the answers make little sense. For instance, people often say incestuous sex is immoral because it runs the risk of begetting a deformed child, but if this was their real reason, they should be happy if the siblings were to use birth control -- and most people are not. One finds what the social psychologist Jonathan Haidt called "moral dumbfounding," a gut feeling that something is wrong combined with an inability to explain why.

Haidt suggests we are dumbfounded because, despite what we might say to others and perhaps believe ourselves, our moral responses are not based on reason. They are instead rooted in revulsion: incest, bestiality and cannibalism disgust us, and our disgust gives rise to moral outrage.

You can test your own moral intuitions with the Taboo game at Butterflies & Wheels. (Yeah, I know I've been linking to them a lot recently, but what can I say - it's just a damn good site!)

The game is followed by an excellent essay by Ophelia Benson:
But this business of repugnance we can't quite articulate should give us pause - should make us come to a screeching halt, in fact. Why can't we articulate it? Could it be because there is nothing to articulate? [...]

Especially since people have always 'just somehow known' in their guts or their hearts or their gluteus maximus, without being able to say why, all sorts of things that the world would be better off if they hadn't just known. That Africans should be slaves, that Jews were polluting Germany, that women should be kept under house arrest at all times, that witches should be burnt, that the races must never mix. We're all too adept at thinking what we're not used to is inherently disgusting.

I suspect that this is a major cause of conservative opposition to gay marriage (and homosexuality generally). I find it rather ironic how they accuse liberals of 'relativism', when much of conservative "morality" is little more than knee-jerk emotivism, followed by feeble rationalisations ("Uh, it's unnatural! Spreads disease! Is bad for families!", etc.). Of course, the loony left is no better, especially when it comes to biotechnology. But I digress.

Moral facts are determined by reasons, not emotions. Still, it is undeniable that emotion plays a huge role in our moral lives. Sometimes this can lead to unreflective prejudice, as mentioned above. But it can also help motivate us in a way that pure reason cannot. Although disgust can cause us to dismiss others from moral consideration, sympathy and empathy can play the opposite role, encouraging us to reach out to those we might otherwise have ignored.

I think that morality is fundamentally about character. It's not just about what you do, but rather, who you are. Thus, I think that emotion is important not as an 'input' to the moral calculus, but as an 'output'. That is, our emotional responses do not determine morality. Rather, morality informs us what our emotional responses ought to be.

An ideal moral agent, by this view, would always have an appropriate emotional response to any given situation. He would thus be able to rely upon his emotions as a sort of 'moral barometer' - he would feel appalled by immoral acts, but unconcerned by permissible ones. But it is important to note the direction of fit: he is good because his emotions correlate well with the moral facts of the situation. It is not the case that the situation is good/bad merely because of his (or our) emotional response to it.

We are hopefully good enough that our consciences reliably correlate with the moral facts, as a general rule. So our emotions are a useful shortcut which can serve us well in our daily lives, when we haven't the time to reason carefully. But in controversial cases, we should remember that these heuristics are far from infallible. Ultimately, if something is wrong, then it's wrong for a reason. And "yuk" is not a reason.

Related links:
  • The Chronicle - Danger to Human Dignity

  • Reason - Discussing Disgust

  • And, for an opposing view, The New Criterion - Does shame have a future?
  • 4 comments:

    1. Hi, Richard,

      I've criticized Nussbaum's particular argument on my own blog; see here and here. In short form, my argument is that to make her arguments she keeps conflating all sorts of things that need to be kept separate.

      I'm also a bit confused about your argument. In what way is the following of moral sentiments a form of moral relativism (or, for that matter, knee-jerk emotivism)? And while I agree 'yuk', as such, is not a very strong reason, it isn't clear to me on what basis you completely deny it status as a reason (a reason for doing something need not be a rational dictate; it just has to be something to be taken into account in practical reasoning).

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    2. Hi Brandon, interesting links. (I haven't read enough of Nussbaum myself to know whether I agree with her specific arguments. But I'm sympathetic to many of her conclusions, at least.)

      "In what way is the following of moral sentiments a form of moral relativism[?]"

      Well, one's emotional response to a situation is a rather subjective matter, wouldn't you say? To call something 'wrong' simply because you don't like it (which is effectively what the 'yuk factor' involves), isn't exactly a very objective foundation for your moral judgements. One should have objective reasons to back one's position up. If there are no such reasons, then one's moral position seems merely arbitrary.

      "it isn't clear to me on what basis you completely deny it ['yuk'] status as a reason"

      Hmm, well it could be a practical reason to avoid something for yourself (as with all subjective preferences). But I don't see how your personal disgust could be a relevant reason for guiding someone else's actions (apart from any desire they have to appease your whims).

      I think moral reasons always ultimately come back to the notion of harm (and possibly only harm to others, I'm undecided on that though). If something causes harm, then that's a moral reason against it. By contrast, the mere fact that you don't LIKE something, or that it makes you FEEL "icky", or whatever, just strikes me as entirely morally arbitrary.

      ReplyDelete
    3. Well, one's emotional response to a situation is a rather subjective matter, wouldn't you say? To call something 'wrong' simply because you don't like it (which is effectively what the 'yuk factor' involves), isn't exactly a very objective foundation for your moral judgements. One should have objective reasons to back one's position up. If there are no such reasons, then one's moral position seems merely arbitrary.I'm not convinced by this. First, we need to be clear about the sense in which emotions are a 'subjective' matter; and while it's commonly said, I'm not sure there's much meaning to it. It's the case, of course, that an emotion is always one's own response (as any actual rational response is) and that actual emotional responses vary somewhat from subject to subject (as actual rational responses do); but none of this implies that use of them would lead to moral relativism or emotivism. Second, I'm not sure it would really be a problem if they were subjective (in whatever sense) anyway: surely morality at least in part involves coming to intersubjective agreement sufficient for living in community? And this would require at least beginning with the actual responses of actual subjects, whatever they might be. And third, I don't see that there is anything here that involves considering something immoral merely because one doesn't like it; no one is saying, for instance, that brussel sprouts are immoral. The sort of 'yuck' involved in moral cases is just different in kind from the 'yuck' involved in non-moral cases. It is possible, of course, to confuse the two, and I think it unfortunately happens often (it is a flaw Nussbaum, for instance, shares with the people she is criticizing). I'm also very skeptical about the notion that one's ethical views can't be objective unless one has objective reasons to back them up; of course they can. It is simply unreasonable to demand that people make no moral distinctions without objective reasons to do so 1) because we often don't have the time; 2) because it's harder to find good objective reasons than it sounds; and 3) because we inevitably make moral distinctions prior to having thought at all about the matter for them anyway. Much more reasonable, I think, is to allow that people already have these responses (including responses of moral disgust) and that these responses allow of refinement by clarification through objective reasons. This still allows reasons to trump and shapes responses, but without the absurdity of a pure ethical rationalism that treats us as disembodied reasoners rather than rational animals.

      On the other issue, there are many cases in which someone's emotional response is a good practical (even a moral) reason for others to modify their actions. If someone is furious at you, for instance, this is something you need to take into account in moral reasoning about how to behave with regard to that person. The reason is that emotional responses have to be taken into account as factors in the situation; there is nothing in their disgust requiring you to respond with disgust, but this is entirely different from the question of whether their disgust needs to be factored into your moral reasoning (at least initially, subject to the clarification of further reasoning).

      Wow, that was a longer comment than I was expecting to write.

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    4. Hey Richard,

      I am a long time reader of your blog even though this is my second time commenting.

      My question is, what do you think about the other acts that Haidt talks about? Incestuous sex, having sex with a dead chicken (mentioned by Stephen Stich in his Nicod lecture)? Do you think these are morally permissible acts? If not, what is the reason?

      Personally, I feel a strong repugnance but when I search for a reason, I simply can't find one. What about you?

      ReplyDelete

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