Wednesday, May 07, 2008

Bigoted Moral Intuitions

Some people judge that homosexuality is immoral, because they find it intuitively repugnant. They must also be aware that a few short decades ago people thought that interracial sex was immoral, on the same basis. This suggests that such intuitions provide a very flimsy basis for discrimination. Indeed, I find it completely baffling that homophobic conservatives fail to realize that they are the modern day equivalent of yesterday's racist conservatives. Why are they not humbled by history? What makes them think that their disgust-based moral intuitions are any more reliable than their grandparents' were?

There was some discussion of this on the Missouri philosophy blog a while back. I suggested that actions are "permissible by default", and that constructing a positive argument for the permissibility of homosexual acts is as superfluous as arguing for the permissibility of eating icecream. The onus is on the moral scold. Andrew Moon responded that we may be justified in believing something to be wrong even if we can't immediately produce an argument to support this belief. I clarified my point as follows:

Andrew - I meant the ‘permissible by default’ thesis to be fundamentally metaphysical in nature. That is, an act is permissible unless there is in fact some reason why it’s wrong.

The methodological implication is that we shouldn’t expect any explanation to be given of why permissible acts are permissible (except for the trite “it harms no-one”, etc. — cf. the ice cream case). If we are to engage the moral question philosophically, the only way to do this is to see if there are any arguments for impermissibility that stand up to scrutiny.

As an epistemic point, of course, people don’t always need to do moral philosophy before having justified moral beliefs. But it’s also obviously true that your mere intuition isn’t enough — just look at all the past bigots to whom it “seemed” that interracial marriage was wrong. I’d guess the epistemic question must be settled by factors external to the immediate phenomenology, e.g. whether your moral intuitions are actually reliable, or something along those lines.

That still doesn’t speak to the practical point, of what subjective guidance one can give an agent here. How about this: if it seems to you that X is wrong, then you may tentatively suppose this to be so, BUT if other epistemically responsible agents call this into question, you ought to put aside your mere intuition and see whether there is any actual reason that can ground it. (If, at the end of inquiry, you can find no good arguments for the impermissibility of X, this would seem pretty strong evidence that in fact you are in the same position as the racists of yesterday.)


Unfortunately, no-one ever responded to these suggestions, so I reproduce them here instead. Any thoughts?

38 comments:

  1. It isn't really clear to me how much anti-miscegenation bias was based on intuitions rather than on inferences within theories of race and marriage, which were flawed. I think inferences from already accepted moral principles are often complicating factors when considering exactly what intuitions are in play (and what those intuitions are); including the case of homosexuality.

    The usual test case put forward for an account of the role of moral disgust is incest; so it's an interesting question to ask what we are left with on your permissible-by-default approach. I take it that there's no particular reason why incest is wrong if we do not take the disgust itself as a reason why it is wrong.

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  2. Richard,

    It is not clear to me why you refuse to assign epistemic significance to intuitions based on feelings of repugnance but not, say, to intuitions based on feelings of outrage, which underlie many widely accepted deontological principles and claims(even if you reject these principles, you don't do so on the grounds you reject principles that condemn homosexual acts and attitudes). You appear to say that the phenomenal seeming of wrongness does not count even presumptively in favour of a moral position, but seemings—both intellectual and perceptual—are the ultimate grounds for whatever we justifiably believe. Moreover, I discern a tension between what you say about testing for the reliability of our intuitions and your earlier expressed misgivings about Eliezer Yudkowsky’s style of arguing. I thought your view was that “simplistic meta-arguments are no substitute for the real thing.”

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  3. Intuition isn't enough for the same reason that appealing to God for moral justification isn't enough.

    Is the intuition saying what is right, or is the judgment 'right' because the intuition said so?

    If one were to say, "you haven't given me any reason to abandon my intuitively based moral judgment, so I won't," then you could say, "you haven't given yourself any reason to accept it. Intuition, in itself, is just not relevant to the question."

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  4. I believe there is an external world because it seems to me there is one, and because I have no sufficient independent reasons for believing otherwise. So I cannot honestly deny the epistemic force of intuition. What can be shown is that, in many cases, we do have reasons to believe that what seems to be true isn't actually true. But doing this involves tracing the causal history of the intuition in question to an unreliable formation process. My point is that Richard is sceptical about such "debunking" explanations, so I don't see how he can draw a distinction between those intuitions which he is willing to rely on and those which he rejects as devoid of epistemic significance.

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  5. Brandon - you shouldn't think that incest is wrong, then. (It seems to me very obviously permissible in some cases, e.g. an infertile couple who were raised separately and only later discover that they are related. Aside: in other cases there may be real reasons against it, due to power and consent issues. But incestuous rape is wrong because it's rape, not because it's incest.)

    Pablo - I'm pointing out that feelings of repugnance have an especially bad track record. I'm not sure whether the same is true of outrage, etc., but if it is then my point would extend to that too. Regarding 'presumptive' considerations, I think you overlooked my final paragraph: "if it seems to you that X is wrong, then you may tentatively suppose this to be so, BUT if other epistemically responsible agents call this into question, you ought to put aside your mere intuition and see whether there is any actual reason that can ground it. (If, at the end of inquiry, you can find no good arguments for the impermissibility of X, this would seem pretty strong evidence that in fact you are in the same position as the racists of yesterday.)"

    I do agree that “simplistic meta-arguments are no substitute for the real thing.” There's no tension here, but I'm glad you brought this up because it's illuminating to see why. The short answer is that while Eliezer was committed to an unknown argument for the impossibility of zombies, there is no such missing argument that my inductions are substituting for here. This relates to my 'methodology' point. The question whether P is permissible is ultimately settled by the question whether there are arguments against it. Similarly for possibility. So I would be wary of an inductive 'meta-argument' against intuitions of permissibility just as I am in the case of possibility. And I would be fairly open to debunking one's intuitions of impossibility, just as I am here to intuitions of impermissibility.

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  6. The short answer is that while Eliezer was committed to an unknown argument for the impossibility of zombies, there is no such missing argument that my inductions are substituting for here. This relates to my 'methodology' point.

    I fail to see the relevance of this difference. Yes, you can say that whether something is permissible hinges on whether there are arguments against it. But you don’t grapple with the “arguments” that opponents of homosexual behavior provide; you merely dismiss them on the grounds that they bear a striking resemblance to the “arguments” put forth by racists one or two generations before. Of course, you might argue that intuitions have no valid place in argumentation. But then you’d face the problems I referred to before. Instead, you could say that those intuitions have a presumptive force which is then undermined by their being shown to have a dubious causal history. But to make this claim you don’t need any theory of the sort you claim to have and you object to Eliezer for not having.

    Incidentally, my own view is that we are perfectly entitled to debunk the claims of bigots in the manner you did. It’s just that I think we should be doing this all over the place, and that, contrary to what you seem to believe, there is no such thing as the genetic “fallacy”.

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  7. An act is permissible unless there is in fact some reason why it’s wrong.

    The traditional (i.e., Catholic) reason why homosexuality is wrong is that it is contrary to a natural end. The natural end of a sexual act is procreation. Therefore, any sexual act that intentionally thwarts that end is unnatural. Obviously, a homosexual sexual act (or is it simply a 'homosexual act'?) thwarts procreation. Therefore, homosexual acts are wrong.

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  8. The traditional (i.e., Catholic) reason why homosexuality is wrong is that it is contrary to a natural end.

    Lex, I advise you to take a look at J. S. Mill's essay on "Nature". If you can't read the whole thing, then at least read the last two pages.

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  9. Lex - I discuss (well, mostly mock) that argument here, and discuss others in my post on 'Gay Marriage Arguments'. I think all the arguments against homosexual acts are ridiculously bad, but you're welcome to discuss the issue further in the comments to either of those posts. But note that for this post, I'm only interested in the status of pure intuition-based claims, i.e. that are not supported by any further argument. So this is not the thread to pursue those other arguments.

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  10. Richard,

    I thought that would be your position.

    On your reply to Pablo -- do intuitions involving moral repugnance have such a bad track record? There are lots and lots of cases they seem to get right: disgust at rape, at pedophilia, at slavery, at certain forms of abusive behavior, at the more smarmy and sleazy forms of sexual harassment, etc., are all fairly common moral reactions. Even if we take miscegenation and homosexuality to be cases of misfiring, that doesn't seem adequate to overbalance such a wide range of cases. What outside of miscegenation and homosexuality would be a candidate for incorrect moral disgust?

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  11. I propose

    1) You should not change your opinion of something that you think is wrong, all things being equal. (a sort of rule based morality)
    2) You may have a reason for believing one set of things as opposed to another even if you are not able in the available time to identify the reason.

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  12. I posted this comment to a linked post (accidentally) and here I am reproducing it:

    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?

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  13. Brandon,

    I think Leon Kass discusses at least two more cases of repugnance-based moral judgments: against abortion and against stem-cell research. Both cases of misfiring, in my opinion.

    However, I think your examples raise good questions about whether any of the examples discussed so far are really "intuitive": while some people are disgusted by the idea of interracial sex, we are disgusted by racism. Or, you seem to be saying that the idea of slavery is intuitively repugnant, while many people in the past had an "intuitive" idea that treating blacks the same as whites is what's repugnant.

    Should we really be talking about intuitions at all, or is something else at work here?

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  14. Are disgust toward <insert permissible sexual practice> and disgust toward slavery/rape/abuse really the same thing? They feel very different to me, in the same way they both feel different from disgust toward, oh, rotten food, and only one feels morally relevant. I think our coarse emotional vocabulary is a problem here.

    Outside of sex and biotechnology, body modification and cannibalism are obvious examples of bad repugnance-based judgments.

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  15. I think I'm with Richard in discounting the evidential significance of feelings of disgust for our moral judgments. I guess this is a question about the view under attack. Brandon remarked, "I take it that there's no particular reason why incest is wrong if we do not take the disgust itself as a reason why it is wrong."

    I would have thought that the feeling of disgust was not the wrong-making feature. I would have thought that the features that grounded wrongdoing on this sort of view were features of the objects that produced the feeling of disgust. Am I wrong about this?

    If I'm not wrong about this, it seems that the disgust team faces the same difficulties Richard is supposed to face with cases like incest. Surely it's a contingent feature of our psychological makeup that the things that disgust us do disgust us. Are you going to say that the conditions under which incest are permissible are the conditions under which it doesn't produce the disgust response? Are you going to say that heterosexual sex would be wrong under the conditions that these acts produce feelings of disgust.

    If we go with the 'buck passing' sort of account, we can avoid these difficulties but then a new one arises. What are the features that produce this response? It seems that whatever features someone cites we'll have to say that we have no cognitive grasp of how these are wrongmaking features. (That's why _arguments_ against the moral permissibility of homosexual sex acts are so funny except that they aren't.) So, it seems that on this account the _only_ epistemic access we have to the features that make homosexual sex wrong is through a feeling. That seems worrisome.

    Anyway, I think there's an easy way of distinguishing incest from homosexual sex acts. I happen to think that sex is permissible only if it serves a certain motive. Love is for me a sufficient motive. (It is for Catholics too if they're not lying to themselves. Sex during pregnancy is for most of them permissible and surely that doesn't serve the motive of reproduction. Natural family planning looks for all the world to be an attempt to sever the connection between sex and reproduction. And, while Catholics might disagree, there's just nothing wrong with heterosexual couples having anal sex.) I happen to think that no psychologically healthy person can express that sort of love in an incestuous relationship. I don't see incest as a moral issue, per se. I think it's an act that only the unwell would have a desire to engage in.

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  16. Richard, I think your permissible by default thesis can even be strengthened by treating it as what I'll call a meta-moral claim, viz., that unnecessary moral restrictions are themselves normatively wrong. (Where that claim comes from any number of sources, e.g., some Millian idea about individuality, Kantian autonomy, etc.)

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  17. Hmm... good point Paul, very good point.

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  18. Tea,

    Those are interesting examples. I'm a little doubtful about the view that opposition to ESR involves much in the way of moral disgust. It's simply not something falling under the actual experience of most people; it occurs in laboratories, most people have no clear idea what's being done it, direct photographic evidence (for instance) is almost uninterpretable to the non-expert, and when you ask them why they oppose it, they always appeal to abstract principles. Abortion is a more plausible instance of moral disgust at work, I think; or, at least, has been since it became more common to use pictures of fetuses.

    I think you're quite right to raise the question of what's going on when we talk about 'intuitions' in this context, though. 'Intuition' is a word that tends to get applied to all sorts of very different things, so there's plenty of room for talking past each other.

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  19. Clayton,

    That comment in particular wasn't about disgust itself but about Richard's permissible-by-default suggestion; there is no non-problematic account of the morality of incest, but there is widespread consensus that it is wrong. Indeed, the taboo against incest is the single most stable and universal moral evaluation; the only general disagreement about it seems to be exactly how consanguinous you have to be before the act counts as incest. But there appears to be no reason for considering it wrong, unless the moral disgust at it is taken to be that reason. So it appears to present a dilemma: either there are things that are immoral purely in virtue of moral disgust, or incest is not immoral.

    If I'm not wrong about this, it seems that the disgust team faces the same difficulties Richard is supposed to face with cases like incest. Surely it's a contingent feature of our psychological makeup that the things that disgust us do disgust us. Are you going to say that the conditions under which incest are permissible are the conditions under which it doesn't produce the disgust response? Are you going to say that heterosexual sex would be wrong under the conditions that these acts produce feelings of disgust.

    I don't see that there's actually any problem here. Moral disgust is not a principle of obligation or prohibition but, as Hume recognized, of moral taste (it's not the only such principle, of course). It also doesn't tell us anything about what is permissible, so the first question is unanswerable if we stick purely to these terms. On the second, I'm not quite sure what you have in mind; if changing the scenario from homosexual to heterosexual has no effect on evaluative reactions, as the question seems to suggest, then the evaluation would obviously be the same.

    I'm somewhat surprised that I have a more permissive view of sex than you do.

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  20. What is an intuition? I think we need unpack this. (I recognize philosophers appeal to intuitions. I tend to find the way they do deeply unpersuasive.

    In this case what is being attacked?

    I think it the position that people have a strong belief that they can't provide a coherent argument for. But is that necessarily bad? And is this necessarily an intuition? I don't think so.

    Of course I'm speaking as a Peircean pragmatist here and his point is that belief isn't volitional. We can talk about how good a job of inquiry someone has engaged in. But I don't think that entails they don't have a solid position just because they don't have the ability to argue it. (Which is what a lot of epistemological justification claims reduce to)

    Now in the example at hand I have a hard time thinking that most people who hold these "intuitions" really have done much inquiry. But in other cases someone may be unable to provide justification but be justified. (Note that this is not reliabilism of the sort Alston promotes)

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  21. I'm with Brandon - it is not at all clear how bad is the overall track record of disgust. We should sit down and carefully draw up as thorough a track record we can of various types of moral intuitions and see what the whole record looks like.

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  22. Clark - I think I agree with that. My 'epistemic' point was meant to grant the possibility of justification in the absence of arguments. But my 'practical' point was that in face of respectable epistemic disagreement, it's advisable to have a closer look. (The post was largely inspired by my, um, disgust at how Andrew Moon was so thoroughly unreflective about his homophobia. He seemed to think his emotional response somehow settled the question.)

    On the broader track record of disgust, I don't think it's relevant that we're often disgusted by things for transparently good reasons, i.e. where it's obvious what the moral harm is. The more interesting question is whether there is 'wisdom' in repugnance, i.e. whether it often (or ever) helps us to get the right conclusions when we otherwise might not have.

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  23. Richard,

    That's precisely what I was talking about. Of course, you can find in many of these cases clear good reasons; but it does not follow that most people know those good reasons, or have anything more than a vague idea of what those reasons might be. You don't have to see what the moral harm of sleazy sexual harassment is -- you just have to recognize that there is one; and a woman who is disgusted by the behavior without having a clear reason why is not being irrational. I think that in most of these cases it is not obvious what the moral harm is until it is pointed out. But it can be obvious that there is a moral harm. You don't need to know the principled reason for thinking pedophilic rape wrong, and most people if pressed would find it difficult to put forward any such principle in a non-problematic way; but most people will recognize it as morally disgusting and revolting. For that matter, it's still controversial how best to characterize the moral harm of rape -- there's a great deal of good feminist work that shows that standard analyses are problematic. But one can still recognize that it is an awful, terrible, revolting thing. A woman who has been raped, or her family and friends, don't need an account of the reasons why rape is wrong; she recognizes its wrongness by the repulsiveness of the violation, and others recognize it in varying degrees by sympathy with that.

    I agree that the more interesting question is whether it gives us right conclusions we might otherwise not have. (Although I would argue that cases like rape -- the severity of whose moral wrong has often been simply ignored wherever people have not taken seriously the revulsion and disgust raped women feel at the violation -- would fit such cases.) But the accusation against moral disgust was that it was unreliable; and you don't check (e.g.) the reliability of your eyes by listing optical illusions, but by identifying the things you can double-check your eyes on, by an independent means, so that you can see whether the range of its reliability is wide, or narrow, or nonexistent.

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  24. I think Brandon's point is a good one. I think we might do well to ignore for the moment what is philosophically defensible in terms of ethics or epistemology and then neglect loose use of 'intuition.'

    Let's say that evolution has provided instincts of good and bad behaviors. Clearly there is a utility in such instincts (I'll not call them intuitions). A person may be completely unable to justify them. And in some cases the instincts may be wrong. But there is a utility and thereby reason behind them. Indeed this is the basis of a lot of cognitive science research into evolutionary ethics. Admittedly a lot of it is hand waving and not terribly persuasive. But I think there's something to the evolutionary angle that can't be neglected.

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  25. Again, I never denied that our intuitions may provide some (defeasible, prima facie) guidance. Does any of this count against my point that in face of reasonable disagreement, it's morally irresponsible to cling dogmatically to such intuitions?

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  26. I'm not sure why you think it wouldn't. Consider a different case, one with more obvious ramifications: vision. In the face of reasonable disagreement, is it reasonable to insist on what you seem to have seen until someone has given you positive and convincing reasons to think otherwise? Yes, if we have no reason to think that there is any factor involved that (so to speak) disrupts the reliability of vision. So before we can say anything about whether it's irresponsible to insist on moral disgust, we need to have a reasonably good account of the conditions under which it is reliable -- probably not perfect (just as we don't need that in the vision case), but good enough that we can say, "There are positive reasons to be suspicious of this source of information, given this or that condition." At least, if we don't take this route, I'm not sure that the question isn't really being begged against the moral sentimentalist.

    Mere disagreement, even reasonable disagreement is not a defeater elsewhere, so it isn't clear why it should be a defeater here. It would be different if, armed with a reasonably precise and well-supported account of why (e.g.) certain forms of racism involve an inappropriate triggering of moral disgust (i.e., what features of the situation are causing the misfiring, and why it is definitely a misfiring), we could identify those very same features in the disagreement, and thus be appropriately suspicious. But I don't see that this has really been done here -- rather, a handful of past failures is being put forward as a reason for saying that "you ought to put aside your mere intuition and see whether there is any actual reason that can ground it" whenever there is reasoned disagreement.

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  27. It seems to me that as behaviors become become less external and more closely connected to who we are--our bodies and minds--our experience of them also becomes less abstract and more concrete. That is, we experience them in a way that conveys larger amounts of information but is at the same time very hard to express.

    This "concreteness" seems to become greatest in the domain of gender and sex. For example, I have a very strong sense from experience that there are a lot of salient differences between the usual personalities of men and women, yet any time someone attempts to put these differences into words I think that the result is laughably oversimplified and stereotypical.

    Therefore, I claim, there is simply no way to discuss the morality of sex without appealing to inchoate sensibilities. Such arguments serve not to define what is wrong but by pointing to what is wrong; that is, they must ultimately refer to the hearer's own experiences to be persuasive.

    This doesn't mean that the sensibilities must be strongly emotive as suggested by the word "disgust". I can read Plato's Symposium and quite dispassionately observe that the kind of homosexuality presented there, for example, seems repugnant to human dignity. (The funny thing is, even the Athenians in the dialogue seem to share the intuition of its shamefulness despite their praises of this love.)

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  28. Here's something that bugs me about attempts to ground sexual morality by appeal to disgust: they assume that everybody is repulsed by the same sexual acts. Or at best, they assume that everybody ought to be repulsed by the sexual acts that the author (almost invariably a man with mainstream gender presentation) is disgusted by. Neither assumption seems very epistemically responsible to me. People are disgusted by different things, and it's question-begging to assume that the mainstream male emotions of disgust are somehow best.

    A thought about the difference between disgust at rape and disgust at homosexuality: the disgust is playing two very different moral roles. In the rape case, what matters is the victim's disgust. Their disgust is evidence that they have been hurt or violated. I would argue that their dispositions toward disgust partly ground the fact that they have been hurt or violated. In the homosexuality case, what doesn't matter is the disgust of some busybody third party. The third party is not being hurt or violated by other people's sex lives, and is not an authority on what constitutes sexual hurt or violation to people other than themselves.

    To summarize the theory I'm advancing: Your feelings of disgust are evidence about (and serve to partly ground) what can permissibly be done to you, but not about what it's permissible for other consenting adults to do in the privacy of their own bedrooms. This answers Brandon's question about why disgust at harassment is relevant, but disgust at homosexuality is not.

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  29. Rachael - thanks, I think you've hit on a key insight there.

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  30. Rachael, excellent comment. You say:

    Here's something that bugs me about attempts to ground sexual morality by appeal to disgust: they assume that everybody is repulsed by the same sexual acts. Or at best, they assume that everybody ought to be repulsed by the sexual acts that the author (almost invariably a man with mainstream gender presentation) is disgusted by.

    I think there's a fairly good argument that they do neither. Moral disgust is a matter of moral taste; and moral taste, like every other form of taste, exhibits variation, and some of this variation in moral taste, as with any other variation in taste, can be accepted as consistent with the taste itself. When someone appeals to disgust in a moral matter, they aren't generally saying that everyone should feel disgusted at the same things or in the same way, any more than those appealing to moral anger are saying that everyone should feel angry at the same things or in the same way.

    As to the distinction between disgust at rape and disgust at homosexual activity, this is the sort of thing I was angling at above -- I think one needs something of the sort to make the move Richard was suggesting. I think your suggestion would need refinement, because there are obvious cases where the disgust of unharmed and unviolated third parties is morally relevant. (If a good and decent stranger is disgusted at a rapist's work, one can't simply dismiss this on the grounds that they are not authorities on sexual hurt and violation to people other than themselves. So the distinction isn't really a matter of their being third-party, unharmed, or unviolated.) But it's a promising first approximation.

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  31. Brandon, thanks for the thoughtful response (as well as the kind words).

    When someone appeals to disgust in a moral matter, they aren't generally saying that everyone should feel disgusted at the same things or in the same way, any more than those appealing to moral anger are saying that everyone should feel angry at the same things or in the same way.

    Do people appeal to moral anger in the way that they appeal to disgust? My first thought was "Of course they don't. I can't remember ever hearing anybody say 'I know X is wrong because X makes me angry.' People say things like, 'I know X is wrong X hurt an innocent person' or 'I know X is wrong X is dishonest'. The anger helps them locate moral wrongs, but it isn't presented as grounds for the claim that a moral wrong has been committed."

    On the other hand, looking back over Andrew Moon's comments on the Missouri thread, I see that "Disgust helps me locate wrongness" is actually a fall-back position, which gets invoked only after he fails to convince his interlocutors that gay sex is perverted. The word "perverted" seems to play a similar role to other thick moral concepts like "unfair" and "innocent".

    I suppose if someone said, "Why is it wrong to hurt an innocent person?", I would make some sort of emotional appeal. Still, I wouldn't say that it was wrong because I was angry (even if I was angry). I'd say something like, "Look at him! Don't you care that he's in pain? What good can possibly come of this?" "I can tell that's wrong because it makes me angry" strikes me as bizarre and solipsistic. Maybe this just part of some larger problem with the catch-all term "intuition". (It's not a normal feeling of anger or disgust! It's a Philosophical Intuition!)

    Lots to think about here, but I have to go check out of a hotel room. I will be back to say something about Brandon's second paragraph.

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  32. Well, disgust and anger often are taken together as moral emotions; one thinks of J.S. Mill's famous passage in The Subjection of Women:

    What is more; in the most naturally brutal and morally uneducated part of the lower classes, the legal slavery of the woman, and something in the merely physical subjection to their will as an instrument, causes them to feel a sort of disrespect and contempt towards their own wife which they do not feel towards any other woman, or any other human being, with whom they come in contact; and which makes her seem to them an appropriate subject for any kind of indignity. Let an acute observer of the signs of feeling, who has the requisite opportunities, judge for himself whether this is not the case: and if he finds that it is, let him not wonder at any amount of disgust and indignation that can be felt against institutions which lead naturally to this depraved state of the human mind.

    But you are right that the link between such moral sentiments and reasons can't be quite so straightforward as "I know that X is wrong because X disgusts me / makes me angry". I keep bringing up taste, and there is in fact a parallel here between moral and aesthetic taste; the latter, at least when cultivated, does not consist in saying, "I know Jane Austen is an excellent author because her writing pleases me." That is, as I think Kant points out somewhere, too subjective; it would turn beauty into mere sensible charm, and defeat the purpose of appealing to the sentiment in the first place. (For one thing, taste has a social element. But pinning it down exactly is tricky.)

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  33. Ah, I was looking for this, and couldn't find it when writing the above comment. There's a nice passage on rage (as the most extreme form of anger) as a source of moral information, despite its problems, toward the end of Angela Bolte's The Outcast Outlaw (the paragraph starting, "The reason for this fact"). That was the sort of thing I had in mind in bringing up the anger analogy.

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  34. If a good and decent stranger is disgusted at a rapist's work, one can't simply dismiss this on the grounds that they are not authorities on sexual hurt and violation to people other than themselves. So the distinction isn't really a matter of their being third-party, unharmed, or unviolated.

    Maybe a better statement of the view is this: a bystander's feelings of disgust at other people's sexual behavior counts as defeasible evidence of moral wrongness. The feelings of the sexual participants count as much more reliable evidence about the moral status of sexual behavior (and as partly constitutive of the behavior's moral status). The evidence provided by a bystander's disgust can be overridden by new information about the feelings of the participants. If what looks like a creepy assault turns out to be a consensual BDSM scene that both participants feel perfectly happy about, then that evidence overrides the evidence of a third party's disgust (even if the disgust persists in the face of that information).

    I don't think it's quite right that the moral emotions of the participants are always more relevant than those of bystanders. If someone is raped while unconscious and is not disgusted (perhaps because they don't know they were raped), then their lack of disgust isn't decisive evidence that nothing bad occurred. But when the sexual participants are in a good epistemic situation (as many people in same-sex relationships are), then their emotions seem to carry more authority than those of bystanders. Now I just have to give a non-circular story about what a "good epistemic situation" is.

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  35. I don't mean to interrupt this interesting exchange, but I'm intrigued by Brandon's acknowledgment that brute appeals to emotion are "too subjective", and that moral taste must be cultivated.

    It seems to me that homophobes (like anti-miscegenists) have extraordinarily bad moral taste. (Their emotions are not really attuned to the morally relevant features of the situation.)

    Under what circumstances, then, should someone like Andrew Moon begin to take this accusation (that he has poor moral taste) seriously?

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  36. Rachael,

    I hope you'll let us know when you come up with a good analysis of 'good epistemic situation'; that would be interesting.

    Richard,

    I think that's an excellent question. I think it depends on a few things -- how close an analogy one sees between moral taste and aesthetic taste, and what particular view of taste one has. To make it easier, let's assume here a crude model of moral taste that works exactly aesthetic taste, where the latter is a simplified, generic version of the view of taste held by Hume, Beattie, Gerard, Kant, etc. in the early modern period. Properly functioning aesthetic taste, then, involves more or less the following features:

    (1) Acute sensibility
    (2) Broad experience
    (3) Distinct apprehension
    (4) Lack of distorting prejudice
    (5) Sympathetic sense of how others would feel about the matter
    (6) Good sense

    (1) is the ability to feel the relevant sentiments and their finer shades and differences; (2) is wide acquaintance, direct or indirect, with the topic in question; (3) is the ability to recognize key features and draw useful distinctions; (4) is obvious; (5) is the social aspect of taste -- in judgment of taste you are judging not merely for yourself, but making a weakly normative judgment that transcends an individual point of view; and (6), the one that the early modern theorists always had the hardest time pinning down, is the native ability to make balanced judgments that tend to the discovery of good ways of looking at the matter in question. So, for example, you have ideal taste in paintings if your evaluations are (2) rooted in experience of a wide variety of different paintings, when this experience is (4) not confused by prejudices and(1) based on a clear grasp of your own experience that (3) allows you to recognize things about paintings and make tricky distinctions that are easily overlooked, and if those evaluations (5) exhibit a good understanding of the variety of human experience and (6) good sense on your part. Of course, noboday has ideal taste; everyone is weaker in some and stronger in others, and has to compensate for their weaknesses with their strengths. And, of course, someone can have good taste while someone nonetheless has even better taste.

    So if we take an analogous approach here, then what one would have to do is look at aspects of the evaluation that can be questioned: e.g., argue that the evaluation has features that suggest distortion by prejudice, a failure to make obvious distinctions, a narrow experience of human life, etc., in ways that the opposing evaluation obviously does not. That's a rough, crude answer, and could be refined; but it gives the gist, I think.

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  37. Thanks Brandon, that's helpful.

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  38. I'm not sure I have much to add to the account of the moral sentiments Brandon is giving here, so I'll just say that it seems about right to me, and sign off this particular thread.

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