What is the source of moral judgement? When we are judging between right and wrong, are we necessarily guided by some kind of purified form of reason? Some have argued that the connection between emotion and morality is more complex than we may often think: Friedrich Nietzsche, for example, made much of the connection between morality and resentment.

One way of viewing the role of emotion in our mental lives might be to view it as a kind of impulsion. Emotions would then be accompaniments to our biologically-programmed reactions to particular situations, a kind of “push from behind” that impels us, uncontrollably, to do certain things. In relation to reasoning, emotion would then appear as a wellspring of impressions which channel our cognitive powers down certain association governed (and sometimes functionally useful) paths.

This view of emotion, which is often associated with the philosopher David Hume, and behaviourist schools of psychology, is supported by some aspects of how we use everyday language to understand emotion. Certainly, when we talk of emotions we often describe them using physical metaphors: someone burns with anger, or freezes with fear, and so on. This seems to ascribe to them a kind of unreasoning force which consumes us, threatening to upset our mental balance. But other views of emotions have been argued for by philosophers, since Ancient Greece, with some of these recently being supported by developmental psychology. Below, we look at the role of disgust in moral reasoning, and consider some of these views [ notes and a presentation can also be downloaded from the main Cardiff Philosophy Cafe website]

Thinking about disgust

In the run-up to the Cardiff Philosophy Café on this topic, a (highly unscientific) poll was featured on the Café blog to explore further whether disgust has more content than just a “push from behind”. Each of the three options offered as potential meals might conceivably excite disgust, but in each case it may well have a different quality. For example, with the “crap cake”, disgust, if experienced, is probably quite immediate, yet may fade upon reflection. Indeed, people who voted in the poll (for whatever reason – inevitably some choices would have been based on other reasons) saw this as the most acceptable option. Disgust is generally associated with unpleasant odours, but also other varieties of perceptual object. Its visceral nature makes it a good candidate for being an example of an emotion that embodies very well the philosophical position on meta-ethics called emotivism – roughly, that moral judgements are expressions of emotion, nothing more, where emotions are typically taken as an eruption of the external world within the individual’s mental life. We may react to the picture of the cake with disgust, but then may also be able to control this reaction once we reflect on what the cake is actually made from.

What about the pet dog? Here things get more complicated. Some cultures are quite happy seeing dogs as a culinary option. If we go back to the Greek historian Herodotus (c.?484 BC – c.?425 BC), who described contrasting funerary customs among the Issedones and the Scythians – the one practising ritual cannibalism of their elderly, the others burying their dead. How would either view the customs of the other? With incomprehension at least, and probably with disgust. So there may be cultural reasons, with their own complex histories, for eating a pet dog or not eating it. But also, if the dog is our pet, then part of the culturally conditioned disgust we may experience is our own history of emotional attachment to him or her. The relationship between us and the dog means that s/he cannot count as an object that fits into the subset of objects which count as food; s/he already counts as something else entirely, thanks to our emotional investment in him/her.

With the battery chicken, things get more complex still: if we feel disgust at the conditions in which battery chickens are kept, this is likely to be bound up with pre-existing moral judgements about cruelty, rather than simply being something external to judgement that mechanically motivates it.

The wisdom of disgust

So it seems that disgust may have more content than simply being a purely non-rational “push from behind”, as it were. Emotivism views morality as an expression, at bottom, of emotion, and emotion as a kind of mechanistic impulsion – with disgust being a particularly emphatic example. So moral judgements about right and wrong, for the emotivist, are fundamentally about things which we either like or dislike. Moral judgements are essentially no different to a more immediate form of behaviour, like a thumbs up for approval or exclaiming “yuck!”.

But the examples show that disgust is more complex than this. Disgust may be conditioned by our cultural inheritance, and thus shape our sense of right and wrong – or it may result from a complex process of reflection on moral concerns. Alternatively, it may be grounded in evolutionary imperatives to distinguish things which are dangerous to touch and especially to eat from those which are not.

Nussbaum in 2004.
Image via Wikipedia

Or it may be all of these things. The philosopher Martha Nussbaum has argued that, in line with the Greek Stoics, we might usefully view disgust, and emotions in general (to differing degrees and in differing ways) as part of our cognitive equipment, rather than as a non-rational “push from behind”.

For Nussbaum, emotions are ways of seeing the world, and contain beliefs about that world and objects within it. Further, they assign value to these objects. They are intentional in nature, even if not fully and clearly conscious: fear is always about something fearful, grief is about a specific loss, and so on. If the object of fear turns out to not be fearful, then we feel relief: our beliefs about what could happen to us have proven unfounded, so our emotions change and with them our beliefs about the world and our position within it. Objects of emotions are seen as important for our lives – our well-being is tied up with them in some way or other. Yet what emotion is ultimately about, for Nussbaum, is how we are at the mercy of the world – that objects within it are important to us, for various reasons, yet are outside our control. Emotions are evidence of this essential vulnerability of human beings, and a way of dealing with it..

The idea that emotions thus have cognitive content, are about the world in some sense, and give us important information germane to our well-being, has inspired some recent attempts to argue that we should strive to understand the positive role that disgust can play in organising and motivating moral life.

The US legal theorist Dan Kahan has argued that disgust is a kind of judgement that an object or practice is “low and contaminating, and we must insulate ourselves from it lest it compromise our own status” (Kahan, 2000, p. 64). He argues that disgust is indispensable from moral vocabulary, because it helps us identify what we consider to be particularly blameworthy about acts of cruelty or extreme forms of depravity. It is not enough to point to our anger or indignation in some instances, argues Kahan, to really identify what it is about a crime that motivates our condemnation of it. He further argues that it simply cannot be eradicated from moral life, and goes on to make what he calls a “progressive” case for disgust, proposing that liberals should not think they can do without what many see as a “conservative” emotion, and that it can be mobilised for progressive ends – such as ensuring that hate crimes, for example, become unacceptable and that prejudicial practices by judges are condemned.

The American bioethicist Leon Kass (1997) makes a different argument for what he calls the “wisdom of repugnance”, in connection to biotechnology and specifically in relation to human cloning.

Revulsion is not an argument; and some of yesterday’s repugnances are today calmly accepted–though, one must add, not always for the better. In crucial cases, however, repugnance is the emotional expression of deep wisdom, beyond reason’s power fully to articulate it. Can anyone really give an argument fully adequate to the horror which is father-daughter incest (even with consent), or having sex with animals, or mutilating a corpse, or eating human flesh, or even just (just!) raping or murdering another human being? Would anybody’s failure to give full rational justification for his or her revulsion at these practices make that revulsion ethically suspect? Not at all. On the contrary, we are suspicious of those who think that they can rationalize away our horror, say, by trying to explain the enormity of incest with arguments only about the genetic risks of inbreeding.

What disgust articulates, for Kass, is a more profound truth than reason – with its contemporary scientized tendency to operate by weighing up costs and benefits can articulate: ” the heart has its reasons that reason cannot entirely know”. Emotion, here, provides a check on the excesses of scientized reason, revealing to us something vital about the nature of the human condition.

Disgust and prejudice

Perhaps taking such a position is to be too sanguine about the value of disgust, however. A German cultural theorist, Klaus Theweleit, wrote a book entitled Männerphantasien/Male Fantasies (transl. 1987) in the 1970s that contained a thorough study of poems, letters and other documents written by members of the Freikorps, proto-fascist paramilitaries active in the Weimar republic who fought against left-wing adversaries, and targeted other groups including German Jews, and among whose members included future notables of the Nazi state including Ernst Röhm and Heinrich Himmler. It looked at, amongst other things, the imagery of disgust consistently employed by these men in describing other groups of people, beginning, most emphatically, with women.

The same imagery is put into the service of making more conscious moral distinctions – for example, between nurses, wives and mothers on the one hand, and prostitutes and working class women on the other. The imagery of disgust – articulated in terms of flows, rot and contamination – is used to reinforce the moral categories of vice and virtue, and is then extended to apply to other groups, particularly Jews, homosexuals and communists. There appears to be a mutually reinforcing relationship between the projection of an identity onto these “out-groups”, and the moral condemnation visited upon them. Communists and Jews alike are identified with vermin and other forms of pollution.

When disgust is used in this way, it marks the other as abject, as outside the categories with which the individual uses to think about his or herself. By identifying the other as a member of a group whose essential characteristic is to dissolve boundaries, mix things up, and spoil familiar forms of order, disgust both motivates and shapes moral conceptions. The characteristic gesture of disgust (wrinkling one’s nose and “pushing away”) achieves cognitive expression here in how disgust imagery and moral condemnation work together to consolidate the identity of the abject other, suggesting perhaps that the feeling of disgust embodies a relationship to the world which is expressed in moral judgement and subsequently in rhetoric and argument. Although actual objects of disgust may vary between cultures, the gesture of abjecting the other (which can be expressed or developed in many forms – including rhetoric and physical violence) may be a universal structural feature of disgust.

The moral danger of disgust

The danger of disgust, perhaps, is that it can ground a morality which ascribes qualities to others which are seen as inherently worthy of moral condemnation – proposing that what a Jewish person or a communist represents (contamination of the self or the community) makes their acts morally repugnant. This is different from the way in which disgust is praised by Kahan and Kass as a kind of “searchlight” which identifies morally questionable actions or policies. The problem with relying on disgust would then be that (if we take Kahan’s example of disgust as a morally accurate barometer for shaping judgements on serious crimes) is very difficult to distinguish one’s disgust reaction to a murder, for example, from the disgust reaction one might have to the alleged murderer.

The anthropologist Mary Douglas in her book Purity and Danger (1966) pointed out how traditional deontological moralities (which base duties, and notions of right and wrong, on particular rules rather than on consequences of action) demarcate between what is unclean and clean on the basis of concepts of cultural boundaries, meaning that moral rules of this kind are fundamentally about policing different kinds of “dirt”, conceived of as “matter out of place”, i.e. matter that infringes the compartmentalization of the world that all human cultures carry out constantly. This chimes nicely with the work of psychologists like Paul Rozin (e.g. Rozin et al., 1993), whose extensive empirical research has examined how feelings of disgust relate to perceptions that boundaries – particularly those which define the human body – are being crossed by objects which are associated with decay and death.

Rozin suggests that what is at issue here is our relationship with our own animality. We are encouraged from an early age to identify ourselves with the world of culture rather than our biology – so cutlery and table manners are interposed between our need to eat and food, we are trained to use the toilet to ensure that our bodily wastes are eliminated, we learn about not spitting, not sharing drinking glasses, and so on. As Rozin has shown, some interesting results come from this process of learning. We learn to abhor cockroaches, even to the point where if asked to eat one concealed in a hermetically sealed, indigestible plastic container, we will not do it, or will not drink tea stirred with a fly-swatter, even if it we are told it has been cleaned.

On this view – which chimes with Nussbaum’s assessment of what emotions do within our moral lives, and cognitive activities more generally – the reason for the power of disgust is that the kinds of objects it focuses on are ones which we believe may erode our bodily integrity, our personal identity, and our cultural identity, classifying objects in the process as belonging to classes of culturally impure and pure. Nussbaum suggests that emotions are ethically significant because they ultimately help us identify things that are valuable for our general wellbeing – material and spiritual, and help us deal with our dependence on such objects. But disgust is an ambivalent emotion in this regard because it supports cognitive categories which essentialize negative beliefs about others in ways which are potentially pathological – there is a big difference between being indignant at how someone behaves and finding them disgusting.


Douglas, M. (2002/1966) Purity and Danger. London: Routledge.  

Kahan, D. M. (2000) “The Progressive Appropriation of Disgust”, In The Passions of Law. S. Bandes, ed., New York: New York University Press.

Kass, L. R. (1997). “The wisdom of repugnance”. The New Republic 216: 17.

Nussbaum, M. (2001) Upheavals of Thought: The Intelligence of Emotions. London: Routledge.

Rozin, P., Haidt, J., & McCauley, C.R. (1993). “Disgust”. In M. Lewis and J. Haviland (Eds.), Handbook of Emotions, pp. 575-594. New York: Guilford.

Theweleit, Klaus (1987) Male Fantasies. 2 vols. London: Polity Press

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5 thoughts on “Ethics and Disgust: Food for Thought?”

  1. Some thoughts on the ethics of disgust…….

    From Chris’s stimulating presentation and our interesting Café discussion on Tuesday, some questions seem to arise. When I reflect on disgust as a term of moral disapproval, and on the different ways in which it may be applied within and between societies, I wonder:

    Could there be a society or social group in which people never express (and presumably never feel) disgust (some communities try to eradicate anger and conflict)?

    How does disgust differ from other terms indicating strong disapproval, such as: obscene, despicable, abhorrent, revolting, appalling, repugnant, ‘sick’ etc.

    All these terms imply a strong, perhaps overwhelming, negative reaction, but what is special about disgust?

    Someone may say that a meal looks or tastes disgusting, but is that really a transfer of the core meaning which is that of moral disgust – i.e., disgust with a person or an aspect of their behaviour (more than a simple disliking).

    Is disgust a ‘gut reaction’ or a response that we reason out from our basic moral principles? Is disgust necessarily accompanied by a physical sensation – we literally feel sickened? Does an expression of disgust have to carry an emotional charge? Or can it be stated in a cold, factual way? Do we have to be able to justify our disgust by rational means (is there anything we can say to someone who does not feel as we do)?

    Some of our discussion highlighted how people’s reactions of disgust can be manipulated by others (and not only Nazis!!). Does this possibility of indoctrination imply that what people find disgusting must partly depend on their beliefs?

    Of whom can we sensibly say they are disgusted by something? Can we say:

    – The worm was disgusted at being stepped on by the pedestrian?
    – The dog was disgusted that her owner did not take her for a walk?
    – The infant was disgusted with the food she was given at teatime?

    Who or what may be a proper object of disgust? Is it things or people, or both?

    The litter or the person who deposits it at the side of a road?
    A person with messy eating habits or the soup splattered over the shirt?
    The homeless person asleep in a doorway or the society that allows that situation?
    The act of ‘water boarding’ a suspect or the people who carry it out?

    It always helps to have further detail of such cases, and this may lead us to moderate or retract our disgust (if we feel it in the first place). We sometimes decide that there are extenuating circumstances, the ends justify the means, etc. But are there certain things that we find so disgusting that nothing could possibly convince us otherwise – and do we feel that it must hold true in civilised society or even in any form of society we can imagine?

    Is the capacity for disgust part of what it means to have a moral point of view?

  2. Personally, I find the idea that there may be no transcultural or otherwise invariant objects of disgust convincing (which implies that, potentially, one can overcome disgust at a particular object/act, no matter what it is). But also, it makes sense (as Rozin and Nussbaum suggest) that disgust has evolved as an emotion which had a definite and invariant intentional structure, namely that provided by the gesture of ab-jecting – lit. pushing away and down, in thought, word and deed – the disgusting other thing/act.

    I would argue that disgust is part and parcel – with other emotions – of what it means to have a moral (or perhaps ethical) point of view. The idea that things in the world matter to us in particular instrumental and non-instrumental ways, because of who we are and what we need, is the basis of any moral perspective on the world, and emotions are a vital ingredient in showing us how and why things and people matter to us.

    But disgust is an emotion that helps set up strong cultural boundaries between the “clean” and the “unclean”. How it is employed as an input to morality, however, needs care – the difference you allude to, Steve, between doer and deed is very important here. More generally, the conflation of act and character in moral judgement creates problems, and disgust is, as a way of identifying things we consider might undermine our sense of who we are, a particular powerful solvent for this distinction.

  3. Nussbaum was quoted as saying something along the lines of “we pick out objects from the world and evaluate them”.

    I couldn’t understand this. It took me half an hour to get what was going on, and then I realised that it still didn’t make sense, but that I wasn’t to blame.

    What happened to me? Surely, I thought, “picking out” involves – is – “evaluation”. Why, then, would Nussbaum need to evaluate them AFTER they had been picked out? Is Nussbaum making synonyms (picking out, evaluating) behave as independent, interacting processes or entities to give substance to theory?

    After a while I suddenly thought that Nussbaum must really believe that objects carry their own significance, for it is this, and not our own template of evaluation that drives us to inspect them for evaluation. But this is mysterious. If they carry their own significance, how would Nussbaum know what that is, and why could or should it be different to our own evaluation? It looks like animism again. But then most philosophy is animism.

  4. The example she gives in Upheavals of Thought to describe “how objects stand” as intentional objects of emotions for a conscious subject runs as follows:

    This aboutness comes from my active ways of seeing and interpreting: it is not like been given a snapshot of the object, but requires looking at the object, so to speak, through one’s own window (p. 28)

    So “picking out” (this rather than that) is evaluating, insofar as identifying something as fearful, beloved, disgusting, etc. always implies a web of meanings that ultimately refer back to the conscious subject’s wellbeing (i.e. the basic question for the subject is: what does this thing portend for me?). So there is no givenness of meaning.

  5. I cannot see what object it is that is picked out before it is evaluated.
    Whatever it is, it cannot be a web of cultural mores according to this model, for the object has no such properties.

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