What's wrong with a man buying an oven-ready chicken, having sex with it, then serving it to his friends for dinner? Disgust is the guardian of our soulsby Paul Broks / August 31, 2008 / Leave a comment
Sunday lunch. it’s a family reunion. Across the table, Ebby shoots me a smile and jams a finger into her right nostril. Would I like to see her bogeys? No thanks, I say, but too late. The finger reappears capped in a glob of snot. Such a charmer, my wife says on the drive home. Charming? Nose-picking at the dinner table? Disgusting, surely. Picture Ebby as a dribbling great aunt and there’s no question. But she’s a pretty two year old, and purity trumps repugnance.
Two year olds are full of emotions like joy, fear and surprise, but have no sense of disgust, which usually emerges around age four or five. Disgust is a late developer in evolutionary terms, too, and may be uniquely human. Infants and animals reject bad tastes, but taste aversion and disgust are not the same. Disgust has more to do with offensiveness. Chocolate tastes good, but shape and texture it like dogshit and most adults are put off. Not so two year olds. That was an experiment devised by pioneer disgust researcher, Paul Rozin. He and a young philosopher called Jonathan Haidt went on to explore disgust and morality. In his 2006 book The Happiness Hypothesis, Haidt describes the evolutionary gear shift from “core disgust,” which is triggered by the physically repugnant, to “elaborated disgust,” which is provoked by the morally outrageous.
Consider the following scenario: bloke goes to the supermarket and buys an oven-ready chicken. He gets it home, slips on a condom, and has sex with it. Then he cooks it thoroughly and serves it to his friends for dinner. What’s wrong with that? No one is any the wiser. The meat is uncontaminated and well cooked. Scenario two: one day (after a nice chicken dinner) our friend and his sister decide they would like to have sex together, just the once. So they do, enjoyably, using contraception, and agreeing to keep it a secret. The one-off experience enhances their relationship. Is that wrong? No one got hurt. Well, we can all agree such behaviour is distasteful and degrading, but can we give convincing reasons why we feel this way? Most people can’t. They flounder in a state of moral dumbfounding—knowing intuitively that something is wrong but being stuck for a rational justification. According to Haidt, this is because the brain has two separate moral evaluation systems, one driven by primitive, automatic reactions,…