This is a very interesting Q&A about the science of disgust. What happens, exactly, when we feel disgust? In the interview, Daniel Kelly (an assistant professor of philosophy at Purdue University) explains in his new book, Yuck!: The Nature and Moral Significance of Disgust, that it’s more than just a physical sensation…
Two questions and answers which caught my attention:
Do we have the ability to change the things we feel disgusted by?
People don’t exactly know how this works, but acute exposure to something can have the effect of decreasing our feeling of disgust toward it. For example, if you go to medical school, you have to deal with corpses a lot because you’re learning human anatomy. As a result, your sensitivity to death-related solicitors [i.e. things] drops off a little. The key part of this, however, is that it is only for death-related disgust solicitors that the sensitivity decreases. Another example is that over time, mothers become less disgusted by the dirty diapers of their own child, but they remain disgusted by the dirty diapers of other peoples’ children. But what’s happening there isn’t conscious. It’s automatic. In general, there’s not a lot known about the ways we can deliberately or voluntarily make ourselves not be disgusted by things.
Can disgust be dangerous?
It’s an indisputable fact at this point that disgust influences a lot of social and moral judgments in a variety of ways. An interesting question is whether or not feelings of disgust should play a part in deliberate decision making. If a large percentage of the population finds some social practice disgusting — like stem cell research or cloning — is that a good reason to think the practice is immoral? I argue that it should not. A practice people are disgusted by may or may not be immoral, but the fact that people are disgusted by it is totally irrelevant to that particular question. We shouldn’t trust disgust to give us reliable information about morality. We know the story of how it evolved and why it varies from one culture to the next. Investing the emotion with moral authority is extremely dubious, and we shouldn’t uncritically trust it.