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Another in Rowman's series Moral Psychology of the Emotions, this volume on disgust follows the pattern set by others in the series. It is a little thicker than some others, having 11 contributions plus an introduction. The 6 psychology papers take up about 130 pages, compared to 88 pages for the 5 philosophy papers, but that is largely because the empirical papers have so many pages of references. The number of pages of main text is roughly similar. There has been a fair amount of discussion within recent philosophy and psychology about how disgust works, what function it serves, and how seriously we should take it when it is extended into ethics and aesthetics. This collection of papers mostly address what reasons there are for using disgust as a moral guide to how to treat other people and how to live.
Some of the central recent psychological work on disgust has been by Paul Rozin, Jonathan Haidt, and Clark McCauley. Many of the chapters in this book summarize and respond to their ideas. Another frequently cited author in the book is Josh Tybur, who contributes the first chapter, co-written with 2 colleagues. The first four chapters address the evolutionary origins of disgust, the relationship between general disgust and moral disgust, and the effects of society on disgust reactions. These chapters are written in relatively straightforward English, and careful attention to them with a background in psychology will be enough to make them understandable, which is good for philosophers without expertise in the psychology of disgust. Since I don't have any expertise in this area, I'm reluctant to evaluate the papers. They are useful for giving a sense of what has been largely settled in the literature and what is still up for debate -- the bottom line is that a lot is still up for debate. There are certainly good grounds for understanding disgust as a distinctively human emotion that is grounded in the evolutionary advantage of being motivated to avoid ingesting potentially poisonous foods and to avoid people who might have infectious diseases. It is striking that this collection has not a single reference to Colin McGinn's 2011 book The Meaning of Disgust. (There may be non-philosophical reasons for this, but McGinn's book got an extremely negative review from one of this book's editors, Nina Strohminger, and an equally strong response to McGinn's reply. Maybe the most positive review was by Wendy Hamblet in Metapsychology.) But can current work in psychology settle debates about morality and disgust? That's far less clear, and it takes philosophical debate to discuss it.
In Chapter 5, Laura Niemi gives a very different sort of examination of disgust: she discusses the self-disgust of victims of sexual assault, and its effect on their moral assessment of their attackers. She argues that this self-disgust affects the victim for long after the experience of assault, and has profound effects on how they view themselves and other victims of sexual assault. It is an important observation but it does not fit in particularly well with the issues discussed by other authors in the book. So it is more of a stand-alone piece.
The final chapter in the first part of the book is by Carlton Patrick and Debra Lieberman. It is basically a summary of the main ideas in their book Objection: Disgust, Morality, and the Law (2018). It is an examination of how the law prohibits actions that people consider to be disgusting, whether or not they cause harm to others or themselves. There is plenty of debate about whether the law should be based on reactions of disgust, and the authors argue in their book that it should not, but they do not include this part of their argument in this chapter.
The second section of the book, devoted to more philosophical papers, starts off with one by Carol Hay, author of Kantianism, Liberalism, and Feminism: Resisting Oppression (2013). She takes a standard Kantian line arguing that the emotion of disgust, not any other emotion, should not guide our moral judgment, and we should be guided by rational considerations. She does a little exegesis of Kant and Hume and sets out pretty familiar considerations. It is certainly clear that we should not live life by blind emotion and no rationality, but it is harder to argue that disgust has no moral relevance at all, and a short paper is not going to settle the debate. Hay's paper gives a useful introduction to the issues that get discussed in more detail by subsequent papers.
Joshua May address the importance of disgust to moral reasoning, and makes a surprising empirical claim that disgust in fact has very little causal effect on our moral judgments, and so is largely irrelevant to the debate. May argues that disgust is the effect rather than the cause of moral judgments.When we are confronted by ideas or proposals that disgust us, May argues that our moral judgments are based on the information that we receive rather than the emotions that result, so the emotions are not causally relevant. Our emotions can direct our attention to morally relevant information, and that can causally influence our values, but this gives emotions, and disgust in particular, a much more limited role to play in morality. May's arguments are interesting, but they require a fair amount of familiarity with the psychological research he is using to assess his claims. Really, this paper belongs more in the first section of the book.
Daniel Kelly contributes a chapter on projectivism and disgust. This is a little surprising, since it is so far from the discussion in his 2011 book, Yuck!: The Nature and Moral Significance of Disgust. It is a metaphysical discussion about whether there really are disgusting things, or whether we just project disgust onto objects. So it is not really about disgust at all, but rather about the metaphysics of properties such as disgust, and it is very similar to debates over whether beauty is a part of the world or whether we project beauty onto objects. So it isn't really a discussion of moral psychology at all, although he does keep disgust as his central example and does address features of disgust to show that his projectivist account works for disgust. He leaves it open whether his projectivism will generalize. In the English language, it is hard to find many examples of where we are inclined to describe the world as having a real property that corresponds to our emotional response: aesthetic properties such as beauty and ugliness are similar, but they are a little less directly connected to emotion. We might sometimes be struck with awe and say that the object perceived is awesome. We don't really do it with love: objects may be described as lovely or loveable, but we don't really have a word to describe objects, animals or people as having qualities that directly provoke love. Similarly with hate (and to describe someone as hateful means something different, and does not necessarily mean that everyone hates that person). So if a projectivist account works for disgusting objects, then it won't have much work to do in generalizing to other similar cases.
The next chapter is more applied: Alexandra Plakias writes about food ethics. We are inclined to find some kinds of food disgusting, and she examines how this relates to ethics. The answer seems to be: not very much. She brings in considerations of how what we eat is related to our identity, and our identity can lead us to find some kinds of food disgusting. She surveys ways in which disgust might play a role in the moral consideration of food, but there isn't a central thesis that she is defending.
The final chapter is by Caroline Korsmeyer who mostly works in aesthetics. Here she addresses the question of whether disgust can be a useful guide to what is morally wrong. Her answer seems to be: it's complicated. She guides the reader through some complications, addressing some aesthetic issues along the way.
On the whole then, section two of this book is a perplexing collection of chapters, none of them defending a straightforward claim about whether moral disgust really is a guide to what is morally wrong in a novel way. At least two of the authors (May, Kelly) have addressed the question in other work, but they go off on a bit of a tangent here. One might look at the PhilPapers page on disgust to see other recent papers on the subject. It is clear that most philosophers are not impressed with reactions of disgust or moral disgust as a strong guide to what is wrong, but some may allow for those reactions to be at least a factor in an overall evaluations in some special cases. The papers here are all pretty clear and will at least be useful guides to the literature.
© 2019 Christian Perring
Christian Perring teaches in NYC.