Defending the Wisdom of Repugnance:
Part 1 of 3 — Disgust as a Learned Emotion

General Bioethics — By on March 4, 2005 at 1:50 am

The concept of the “wisdom of repugnance”, a phrase first coined by bioethicist Leon Kass, has been much maligned recently. Many critics believe the idea that the “ick factor” should play a role in ethical debate is patently absurd and completely irrational. I disagree and in this three-part series I hope to show that the emotion of disgust not only has a valid role to play in moral decision-making but that human dignity is put in danger when we reject the “deep wisdom” of repugnance.

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“In Tierra del Fuego a native touched with his fingers some cold preserved meat which I was eating at our bivouac, and plainly showed utter disgust at its softness; whilst I felt utter disgust at my food being touched by a naked savage, though his hands did not appear dirty.” — Charles Darwin, The Expression of Emotion in Man and Animals

This anecdote helps illustrate that while we may differ about what evokes the response, disgust is one of the few universally shared human emotions. The native was expressing what psychologists call a “core disgust.” Unlike animals, who instinctively seek out certain foods, humans have to learn what to eat and are justifiably cautious about sampling new foods. Since the cold, soft piece of preserved meat had a tactile resemblance to animal feces, the native was understandably disgusted by the thought of eating it. The revulsion was triggered by the idea that “like produces like“; since the preserved meat had many simliarities to feces it might be similarly contaminated.
Darwin’s unease was also based on a variation of the same core disgust. While the native believed that an object (the meat) could be contaminated because of its similarity to another object (feces), Darwin believed the contagion could be spread by contact with the native.
Since this incident was published in “The Expression of Emotions in Man and Animals” four years before Robert Koch proved the germ theory of disease, its unlikely that Darwin understood the connection between dirty hands, microbes, and contamination. More likely he was simply reacting to a pre-rational intuition that belied his scientific understanding.
But where did this emotion come from? Is it possible then that the emotion of disgust was a result of natural selection? Can revulsion be classified as an adaptive mechanism that prevents us from coming into contact with contaminants? Not likely. Why? Because we all start out as babies.
Infants have no concept of disgust. They will, quite literally, put anything into their mouths. While most other animals instinctively avoid contact with certain items, human infants do not. Unable to make a distintion between a piece of food and the “gift” the puppy left on the carpet, they will attempt to eat both.
We can’t, therefore, automatically assume that disgust evolved as a means of biological survival. Since the full range of disgust triggers must be taught, the emotion must be learned. And as with any knowledge that is not inherently in our biological makeup, disgust can be culturally relative and passed on through successive generations.
By this we can conclude that there is such a thing as a “wisdom of repugnance”, at least as far as the “core disgusts”, and particularly as it relates to food. But does the concept have any meaning when applied to the “social functions of disgust?” Before that question can be answered we must first examine the relation between “core disgust” and a concept that psychologists classify as “socio-moral disgust.” That is the issue we will turn to next.
Part 2 – Disgust as a Form of Cognition



  • Ilkka Kokkarinen

    I guess we’ll have to remember this series of postings the next time some convervative mocks liberals about how they don’t think rationally but instead make decisions based on their “feelings”. I have always honestly wondered the cognitive dissonance needed to first argue this way on one hand, then endorse faith and the wisdom of repugnance with the other.
    Speaking of repugnance, many urban liberals also feel obvious repugnance towards such red-state institutions as church and NASCAR. This by itself proves the moral superiority of the metro outlook, right?

  • http://TheEverwiseBoonton.blogspot.com Boonton

    But where did this emotion come from? Is it possible then that the emotion of disgust was a result of natural selection? Can revulsion be classified as an adaptive mechanism that prevents us from coming into contact with contaminants? Not likely. Why? Because we all start out as babies.
    Or it evolved as a trait that could be taught. The child’s culture would teach it what it should find disgusting. A socio-evolutionary process would then take place. Cultures that did not find disgust in things that were really dangerous (like actual animal feces) would not do very well compared with those that were more wise (if not perfect). Hence today nearly all cultures have some universal taboos (such as incest) but there’s a wide array of different things that disgust some but not others (like eating snails).

  • Mr Ed

    Speaking of repugnance, many urban liberals also feel obvious repugnance towards such red-state institutions as church and NASCAR. This by itself proves the moral superiority of the metro outlook, right?
    You’re confusing an innate instinct with a learned response. Such as my learned response of incredulity that you would actually compare such institutions as church and NASCAR.

  • Mr Ed

    Or it evolved as a trait that could be taught. The child’s culture would teach it what it should find disgusting. A socio-evolutionary process would then take place. Cultures that did not find disgust in things that were really dangerous (like actual animal feces) would not do very well compared with those that were more wise (if not perfect). Hence today nearly all cultures have some universal taboos (such as incest) but there’s a wide array of different things that disgust some but not others (like eating snails).
    I can see the argument against eating feces being a taught response. Because even a primitive society can see a more or less immediate response to eating feces. Though if taught it would seem to not be so much a sense of repugnance as a sense of danger (e.g. touching fire). Unless the repugnance was less about epidemiological concerns and more about taste–but then different cultures have different tastes so this wouldn’t naturally follow either.
    But your comment about incest being taboo doesn’t follow. A primitive culture is not likely to connect the occasion of birth defects with incest.

  • http://TheEverwiseBoonton.blogspot.com Boonton

    Incests problems do not end with just birth defects.
    1. Incestual families would not marry outside themselves as much. Hence you don’t have as strong community bonds in an incest friendly culture. Not a good thing if a united non-incest culture decided to send its troops over the hill towards your villiage.
    2. Inside the family incest would cause havoc with internal relations. How much care would mothers give their daughters knowing they would become rivials with their husbands in a bit more than a decade?
    Animals whose young mature quickly, such as cats and dogs, wouldn’t have to worry about this. By the time the mother figures out what’s going on the puppy or kitten is already an adult and doesn’t need the mother to continue nursing. The ability to reason and plan for the future is something cats and dogs lack also. Humans, though, are quite vulnerable when young which means that they are also quite social.
    Even with this being the case, I believe you can find some precedents for incest being accepted in cultures. For example, I read that Egypt under Roman rule prohibited inheritances to children. As a result fathers married their daughters so they could pass their property down to their children/wives. I don’t know if these marriages were sexual, though, or just legal contrivances.

  • Larry Lord

    “Why am I not dead?”
    Some may find this article repugnmant. Others may find it mildly amusing.
    http://www.cnn.com/2005/US/03/04/assisted.suicide.survivor.ap/index.html

  • Larry Lord

    “I can see the argument against eating feces being a taught response. Because even a primitive society can see a more or less immediate response to eating feces. Though if taught it would seem to not be so much a sense of repugnance as a sense of danger (e.g. touching fire).”
    How about burning feces to provide a fire for cooking your food?
    Repugnant? Or thrifty?

  • Larry Lord

    Mr. Ed
    “Such as my learned response of incredulity that you would actually compare such institutions as church and NASCAR.”
    I would wager that more Christians are “guilty” of making that comparison than people like me who consider both activities major wastes of time.

  • Larry Lord

    And fossil fuel.

  • Mr Ed

    I would wager that more Christians are “guilty” of making that comparison than people like me who consider both activities major wastes of time.
    Okay, its a bet. How many Christians do you know? I know a lot and I’ve yet to hear anyone one of them make this comparison. Unless your argument is that they’re both held on Sunday.

  • http://mumonno.blogspot.com mumon

    Of course, from a Buddhist perspective, this is really quite obviously not going to fly: Disgust is a form of attachment, actually to something not being.
    OTOH, you should not attach yourself to that which disgusts you either.
    So, I would say you’ll have to try harder: I think you want to bring in the “ick” factor to try to denigrate some actions other people may not find “icky,” categorically, but this does seem to be at best an argument for moral relativism, since, after all, those other folks may not find these actions icky.

  • Kevin Pfeiffer

    This sounds like a useful argument in favour of vegetarianism. Most people today have little knowledge of or familiarity with the butchering of animals for meat. Medical surgery also has a certain “ick”-factor.

  • http://blogotional.blogspot.com/2005/03/what-disgusts-you.html Blogotional

    What Disgusts You?

    What would we be capable of if we quit arguing about things that were settled centuries ago and starting working on things that were not?

  • Larry Lord

    Ed writes
    “Okay, its a bet. How many Christians do you know? I know a lot and I’ve yet to hear anyone one of them make this comparison. Unless your argument is that they’re both held on Sunday.”
    No, Ed, it goes a little deeper than that. You really need to open your eyes a bit.
    The big joke is that lot of these Christians disparage scientists because their preachers tell them to, but then shell out big bucks to watch the latest technological advances in auto racing in action.
    It’s called hypocricy: a Christian specialty.
    http://www.bpnews.net/bpnews.asp?ID=20182
    http://aolsvc.news.aol.com/sports/article.adp?id=20050221101409990005
    http://66.102.7.104/search?q=cache:LH8irxcjiY4J:www.coolchurches.com/articles/nascar.html+church+of+nascar&hl=en
    Google “nascar church” for more … a LOT MORE.