Defending the Wisdom of Repugnance:
General Bioethics — By Joe Carter on March 4, 2005 at 1:47 am
Part 2 of 3 — Disgust as a Form of Cognition
In 1980, cult-movie director David Lynch released “The Elephant Man,” a film that told the story of John Merrick, a 19th-century Englishman who had the disfiguring congenital disease, Proteous Syndrome. After spending most of his life as a side-show freak, Merrick wanted nothing more in life than to regain his dignity. In the most memorable line of the movie, Merrick cries out in anguish, “ I am not an animal! I am a human being! I…am…a man!”
Ironically, the very emotion that led people to treat Merrick as an animal is one that is peculiarly human. One of the most essential needs of humanity is a recognition of our inherent dignity, which entails separating us from the other species. In the seminal psychological research report “Body, Psyche, and Culture: The Relationship Between Disgust and Morality”, the authors note:
One of the most widely shared features of disgusting events, we believe, is that they remind us of our animal nature. Human beings in many cultures feel the need to distinguish themselves from animals and to hide the markers of our animal nature behind humanizing rituals and practices. If you wanted to convince yourself that you were not an animal, your body would confound you in certain domains: you would still eat, excrete, and have sex, and you would still bleed when your outer envelope was breached, or when you menstruated or gave birth. Every culture prescribes the proper human way to handle these biological functions, and people who violate these prescriptions are typically reviled or shunned.
As an example of this animal-reminder view, the researchers point out that the only bodily secretion that is generally not regarded as disgusting is the only one that is peculiar to humans: tears. (To prove their point they provide the following illustration: “Imagine that you lend your handkerchief to an acquaintance, who returns it wet with mucous, urine, sweat, saliva, breast milk, semen, or tears. In which case would you be least uncomfortable?”)
This animal-reminder view of disgust also highlights a common quality of food, sex, and envelope-violations. In all three domains there are many safe options available to human beings, yet many or most options are taboo. Almost all animal flesh is edible and nutritious, yet most human societies taboo many of the animal species available to them. All human beings (and some animals) are potential sexual partners, yet most human societies taboo many of the possible pairings of partners (and many of the possible sexual acts). There are dozens of safe modifications of the body envelope, yet most human societies taboo all but a few (e.g., ear-piercing, “nose jobs”, body building, and perhaps breast enlargement or reduction for Americans). Americans would consider it monstrous (i.e. inhuman) for a person to engage in unrestricted sex, unrestricted eating of animal flesh, or unrestricted body modification.
Food and sex taboos may have a further similarity in that the middle-distance is often the preferred range. Tambiah (1969) reports that in the Thai village he studied, animals cannot be eaten if they are too close to humans (pets, monkeys, humans), or too distant from humans (invertebrates and other “anomalous” animals; wild animals of the forest). And sexual partners cannot be too much like the self (same sex, same nuclear family) or too distant (animals, people of other races). In many societies the existence of an incest taboo combined with a preference for cross-cousin marriage exemplifies this preference for the middle distance.
But if disgust is a human emotion how does it become embodied as a cultural artifact?
The answer may perhaps be found in a controversial but growing view of human cognition: that it is embodied, and that it may involve metaphors and pattern-matching more than propositions and reasoning. Margolis (1987) argues that language and propositional reasoning are so recent in the evolution of the human brain that they are unlikely to be the basic processes of human cognition. He proposes that cognition, for humans as well as animals, is primarily a matter of quick and intuitive pattern matching, in which patterns get “tuned up” gradually by past experience. This view of cognition is consistent with current research on neural networks, which do not process information by manipulating symbols. Rather, we apply past patterns of action or recognition, quickly and intuitively, in new situations that resemble the original cuing conditions.
Repugnance, therefore, may be a form of knowing that precedes rational thought in the same way that “fight or flight” responses work. When confronted with a dangerous situation we don’t have to wait until we’ve formed a reasoned response based on propositional knowledge before we react. Our autonomic responses, which are conditioned to respond to similar situations, take over and allow us to respond quickly. But not every harmful situation elicits fear, which may be why we’ve developed the emotion of disgust:
Anger, fear and disgust may be responses to different kinds of threats. Anger is a proper and effective response to threats to one’s rights, or one’s property, which can be challenged. Fear is an effective response to threats that can not be challenged, which one can run away from. Yet there are threats for which fear and anger are not appropriate. There are threats that one can’t simply run away from or fight off. Some of these threats, such as oral contamination, may be inescapable aspects of human bodily experience. Other threats, such as individual meaninglessness, may be cultural constructions unique to a particular time and place. We suggest that disgust, or some subset of its embodied schemata, is the emotional response to this heterogenous class of threats. Disgust makes us step back, push away, or otherwise draw a protective line between the self and the threat.
Whereas core-disgusts guard against contamination of the body, socio-moral disgust guards against contamination of the “soul.” Where one protects the health of the human body, the other protects human dignity. Prior to the germ theory of disease, scientific knowledge was inadequate to explain why we should be disgusted by certain forms of “contamination.” This pre-rational wisdom, though, allowed us to survive as a species until our knowledge caught up with our intuition.
If socio-moral disgust is an offshoot of core disgust, then shouldn’t we be careful before we dismiss it as a relic of an outmoded cultural bias? What if the “wisdom of repugnance” protects us from harm in the same way that core disgust do? Should this form of cognition be dismissed simply because it may hinder scientific advancement? That’s the question we shall turn to next.
Part 3 – Science and the Need for Intellectual Humility