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Yuck!Review - Yuck!
The Nature and Moral Significance of Disgust
by Daniel Kelly
Bradford Books, 2011
Review by Wendy C. Hamblet, Ph.D.
Feb 28th 2012 (Volume 16, Issue 9)

The growing community of "disgust thinkers" has initiated yet another recruit. Daniel Kelly, a philosopher at Purdue University, rethinks the affect of disgust from a novel angle. Kelly's aim in his YUCK! The Nature and Moral Significance of Disgust is to give a psychological account of the affect, identifying and explaining the cognitive architecture that underpins experiences of disgust and tracing the foundations of that intricate scaffolding to a melding of multiple threads of evolutionary pressures in early human time, which came to be co-opted to meet new needs arising in the environment, thereby molding disgust into its modern form.

Kelly thus sets out to construct a sophisticated theory of disgust, shaping his study from the wealth of data already gathered on the subject that he argues awaits a satisfactory explanatory model. His approach is to hunt down the explanations for three key characteristic aspects of disgust:

§  unity of the response

§  variation of the elicitors

§  diversity of the elicitors

These three constraints must guide the investigation if a viable theory of disgust is to be reached, Kelly reasons.  Thus the author proceeds to flesh out each of these key areas of inquiry, beginning by unfolding the unifying characteristics of disgust, locating its core experience in a set of universal responses--the visceral sense of revulsion, the feeling of nausea, and the anxiety about physical contact with the disgust-elicitor that suggests the potential for contamination by it. He notes that these features all have to do with the body and particularly the digestive system, which is further confirmed by his account of the characteristic signals, or body language, associated with disgust, the well-known "gape face" which seems to mimic the expulsion reflex associated with retching, gagging, and vomiting, enhanced by exaggerated facial signals of displeasure and revulsion.

Kelly then considers the second and third key areas of inquiry, the broad variety of disgust-eliciting entities or objects and the diversity of those elicitors. He notes that the disgust response seems to present as a human universal  and certain elicitors are found universally disgusting, but great variation exists as to what individuals and cultural groups deem disgusting;  "different things will disgust people with different sensibilities and different cultural backgrounds" (p. 2). For example particular manners, personal habits or foreign foods can be revolting to individuals. The most universal disgust-elicitors have to do with the body in its organic life (flesh, entrails, hair, nails) and especially where these bodily parts are found outside their protective envelope of flesh. Beyond the usual disgust eliciting objects reside the much more morally and politically troublesome culprits, abstract matters of ideology, values and moral ideas. So the variety of disgust elicitors ranges with individual and human group, and runs the gamut from fleshy, concrete objects to abstract values and ideas.

As his project evolves from considerations of essential characteristics of the affect through its various elicitor forms and varieties, Kelly sketches out a complex portrait of disgust, explaining, among other things: why disgust has the diverse range of elicitors it has; why some elicitors are universal and others culturally specific; the types of "false positives" that serve as disgust triggers; why the characteristic features of the response take the physiological forms that they do; how and why the affect plays the highly prominent role that it does in regulating social behaviors; and why a similar response system did not evolve in non-human animals.

After a comprehensive review of previous research on the emotion, Kelly moves beyond them, revealing some compelling features of disgust's "sentimental signaling system" and tracking down the origins of this system by offering an account of the conditions under which the signaling system evolved, and identifying the role it evolved over time to serve in the human group.  Fleshing out the core ideas from two popular explanatory models, Kelly settles upon an "Entanglement thesis" that places the physiological symptoms of disgust (nausea, fear of contamination, the visceral sense of repugnance) at the forefront of the explanation for the affect's universal development in human groups, as well as its unique parochial aspects. The Entanglement thesis holds that disgust's sentimental signaling system evolved from the entanglement of two originally separate signaling systems, both shared with our animal cousins, though not "entangled" into the disgust response in non-human species. Both of the evolutionary threads played critical roles in the preservation of the group and the species, allowing individuals to share crucial information about what was generally safe or perilous to ingest, or what was poisonous or contaminating in their local environments.  

However, these earlier signaling system threads entangled and became co-opted to serve new needs, taking on novel functions to do with consolidating and asserting group identity and ensuring "tribal" survival over against rival groups.  Thus disgust responses as we find them today in human societies are elicited not only by concrete things and objects, but also by abstract stimuli that appear to offend a group's ethnic boundary markers--social norms, rituals, attitudes, beliefs and behaviors. Disgust responses are articulations of ethnocentrism, xenophobia and other forms of countercultural rejection that register and confirm the in-group's shared mores by rejecting out-group practices and beliefs as poisonous, tainted or contaminating--in the worst cases, as sub-human.

Though first glance at its playful title may seem to suggest that Yuck! deals with a frivolous emotion, Kelly's book turns out to dissect a critical source of cultural information that has immediate implications for some of the most serious problems of human history--genocide, ethnic cleansing, racism, classism, sexism, and all other forms of difference-rejection. By exposing the lengths to which this deep-seated affect can go to confirm group identity and register its psychological dis-attunement with different others, Kelly helps to illuminate the grave dangers of taking seriously the signal of disgust. In contrast to "disgust advocates," who hold the affect in high regard for alerting people to important boundaries of propriety that separate "natural" from "unnatural" acts and ideas, Kelly thus reveals that the twisted evolutionary history of this affect renders suspect the very language of human nature. For Kelly, people's disgust responses should never be trusted to supply meaningful moral information about others or their customs, beliefs or practices. Disgust tells us more about ourselves and our group fears and peculiar tastes than about others' moral worth. Thus the Yuck! factor should be granted no weight whatsoever in moral deliberations.  Kelly concludes that, in light of the affect's propensity for recruitment to unworthy causes and goals, today's highly pluralistic societies should remain keenly appreciative of the dangers of taking seriously what people find disgusting. The affect should always be suspiciously regarded, as new prohibitions (laws) and new prescriptions (mores) are carved out to serve the multicultural setting.

Kelly's YUCK! The Nature and Moral Significance of Disgust is a worthwhile read for any moral philosopher, fascinating and accessible to any educated reader, and a valuable addition to the reading list of any university class on ethics, the psychology of violence, or the sociology of xenophobia.

 

© 2012 Wendy C. Hamblet

 

Wendy C. Hamblet, Ph.D., North Carolina A&T State University


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