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, the other by conscious reasoning. The ancient, intuitive system takes the lead. We think we use reason to make moral judgements, but in fact the conclusions we reach are already preset at gut level.
Disgust started out as the guardian of the mouth, evolving with the basic need to avoid toxins and helping our omnivorous species figure out what to eat in the physical world. It diversified through biological and cultural evolution to become the guardian of the whole body, protecting against contamination and disease. With regard to sex, for example, it guides us to acceptable partners and acts and steers us away from deformity and disease. (As sexual omnivores, we have the same “fearful curiosity” for sex that we have for food, being eager to explore new sensations, but holding back in fear of the new and the different.) Now, with a third evolutionary leap, disgust helps us figure out what to do in the cultural world: a moral satnav guiding us through the labyrinthine back streets of sex, religion and politics. From guardian of the body to guardian of the soul.
“I first found divinity in disgust,” wrote Haidt—an arresting phrase that prompts me to call him. The elevation of disgust from the dietary to the moral realm establishes a neat link between biological and cultural explanations, but what then inspired Haidt was the thought: “If we are trying to move away from the bottom, what are we trying to move towards?” In answer to his own question: “Some kind of divinity.” He plots a direct line between disgust and awe. It’s like Jacob’s ladder, he says, rooted in biological necessity but taking us up towards heaven, or at least towards some sense of moral elevation.
When Haidt immersed himself in the sacred texts of the major religions, he was struck by their common concern with bodily matters: sex, food, hygiene, menstruation, the handling of corpses, and so on—essentially a catalogue of disgust triggers. What they have in common, along with so-called “body envelope violations” (wounds, mutilations, deformity), is that they remind us of our animal nature, which is precisely what religion tries to free us from. But he’s an atheist, I remind him. Isn’t the word “divinity” a little troublesome? He points out that belief in divine beings and perfect goodness is nearly universal, and we all have a need to live in a “rich, symbolic world.”
And this, he says, switching to politics, “is one of the big problems with the liberal left.” Conservatism and religion are much better at providing the kind of symbolism, narrative and myth that the human psyche craves. They also have a wider moral repertoire, embracing notions of purity, sanctity and respect for authority that don’t figure so high on the liberal agenda. But he’s a liberal, I remind him. “Yes,” he says, adding, “The problem is nobody can figure out what the liberal narrative is.” Haidt, I suspect, is working on it. I thank him for his time and head for my train home. It is disgustingly late and disgustingly overcrowded.