A friend of ours recently told us a story that raised important questions about an everyday emotion: disgust. He was walking through Chicago’s Lincoln Park holding hands with his boyfriend when a boy around age eight passed the couple on his bike. “Eeewww!” the little boy burst out, making an unmistakable expression of disgust. The men were wearing ordinary clothing and, besides holding hands, seemed generally inoffensive. There were also several heterosexual couples holding hands in the park, but the boy did not react to them. Why, we wondered, did the boy exhibit such a strong emotional reaction to this harmless display? What cognitive processes inspired the boy to act this way, and are they unique to him or common to everyone?
Of course, the problem of disgust extends far beyond that casual encounter in the park; it affects the lives of real people in important ways on a daily basis. Tackling these problems, philosopher Martha Nussbaum explores the social and political implications of disgust in her book From Disgust To Humanity: Sexual Orientation and Constitutional Law, which begins with a quote from a gay teenage boy disgusted by his own sexual fantasies:
Taken from an interview conducted by social psychologist Ritch Savin-Williams, this quote encapsulates the two basic reactions people have to gay life: empathy or disgust. It also brings us to disgust’s most destructive feature: that it is so easily internalized. Having attended an evangelical school, the boy had “internalized society’s attitudes” and “learned to feel horror and disgust at the behavior he desired and to think of it as base or animalistic, not suited to the full dignity of a human being” . Super-ego in full force, the boy had been taught to take up society’s disgust at what for him would always be a fixed biological reality. This sentiment, so fiercely kindled by conservative moralists, has caused serious damage to the mental health of the LGBT community. The Rolling Stone article “One Town’s War on Gay Teens” gives a devastating glimpse of the destructive power of disgust––in this case, many queer youth taking their own lives . Moreover, the “war” the article discusses was waged primarily by the high-profile Republican and former Presidential candidate Michele Bachmann in her own congressional district in Minnesota—a liberal-leaning state. If you thought America had outgrown its puritanical training wheels, you’re wrong. Disgust is alive and well in American culture and politics, and that needs to change. In this article, we will examine disgust from psychological and philosophical perspectives and ultimately call out its inaptness as a basis for important social and political decisions.
The Psychology Behind Disgust as a Moral Emotion — Melissa McSweeney
Philosophers and scientists have recently become interested in the influence that disgust has on human morality and how morality influences what people find disgusting. For example, disgust appears to be a major psychological foundation for cross-cultural dichotomies between “purity” and “pollution.” It also plays a role in structuring religious traditions of regulating human body processes and separating them from sacred objects and practices . In addition to its typical functions, the emotion of disgust is involved in making all kinds of judgments, particularly those of the political flavor. In order to help you decide whether or not you believe that disgust is a rational foundation from which to make political judgments, we will outline the physical and psychological constituents of disgust, as well as its social manifestation.
First of all, disgust can be viewed in an evolutionary framework. The emotion was likely adaptive because it was able to keep our ancestors away from contaminated food and other substances based on aversive physiological reactions. Disgust offered, on a primary and animalistic level, a reliable internal distinction between pure and polluted entities. People can be disgusted by many things such as contamination, unpleasant tastes, smells, and sights, and things that remind us of our animal nature. Though disgust is a natural response to many of the aforementioned elicitors, it often influences our feelings toward people and objects that sometimes become indirectly associated with what we’ve evolved to be disgusted by. So how is it that disgust affects our experiences so deeply, and why does the emotion extend beyond its evolutionary purposes?
Before researching the psychology of disgust, we hypothesized that the boy’s reaction to the homosexual couple discussed earlier is also experienced by much of the adult population, but that most adults have learned to hold back their outward displays of disgust that children tend to act out so freely. It seemed clear to us that the boy’s disgusted response was based on learned values rather than innate, biological instinct, which only makes logical sense in the face of substances that might actually be harmful or contaminated. Through cultural messages condemning homosexuality, the boy had learned that disgust was an appropriate reaction. Learned cultural messages can still become physiologically ingrained, however: just as an individual’s heart rate speeds up when his moral values are insulted as he goes into a defensive mode, it’s plausible that the boy’s disgusted reaction to homosexuality was physically ingrained in his system due to his upbringing, and was triggered when he saw the conditioned “disgusting” stimulus: two men holding hands.
Using fMRI technology, scientists have linked the experience of disgust to the anterior insular cortex, a part of the brain evidenced to be involved in gustatory processes, which includes processing “offensive” tastes in the case of disgust. Interestingly enough, activity in the anterior insular cortex accompanies all disgust reactions, even those induced by entities that have nothing to do with consumption of food or taste, thus establishing a strong cognitive association between the mouth and elicitors of disgust. This phenomenon, which Daniel Kelly calls “oral incorporation,” is thought to play a strong role in intuition-based reasoning about using disgust as a justification of something being morally wrong, just because it triggers such a deep, physiologically-rooted response . In other words, people often can’t rationalize their beliefs about entities that disgust them, but remain convinced of the veracity of their beliefs because of strong intuitive reactions that are purely physical.
It is important to mention that the anterior insular cortex is considered to be a limbic-related cortex. The limbic system is the most animalistic part of the human brain; it processes basic evolutionary instincts and pre-rational emotions. There is no logic or reason in the limbic system. For example, aggression is largely correlated with activity in the amygdala and hypothalamus, other parts of the limbic system. Aggression is monitored, however, by activity in the prefrontal cortex—a part of the brain that is unique to humans and the higher primates. The prefrontal cortex is considered to be the center of human rationality, as it is involved in advanced cognitive functions such as informed decision making and emotional balance. Essentially, if we only rely on the emotion of disgust to validate our beliefs, we are relying on a stupid, irrational neural reflex. Justifying a decision based primarily on one’s feeling of disgust is akin to acting out a feeling of aggression by punching a stranger in the face because he said something that irritated you (and therefore activated the part of your amygdala involved in aggression).
Jonathan Haidt, a moral psychologist at the University of Virginia, has illustrated the human tendency to make purely intuitive judgments through his experiments that purposefully induced “moral dumbfounding” in unsuspecting people. In these experiments, Haidt and his colleagues presented subjects with hypothetical scenarios that were designed to be morally irrefutable, in the sense that they don’t imply harm of any parties in the scenario. Subjects, however, still tried to condemn the scenarios, but ended up relying only on their intuition to justify the wrongness of a given story. Here is an example of a scenario that Haidt employed in this experiment:
“Julie and Mark, who are sister and brother, are traveling together in France. They are both on summer vacation from college. One night they are staying alone in a cabin near the beach. They decide that it would be interesting and fun if they tried making love. At the very least it would be a new experience for each of them. Julie is already taking birth control pills, but Mark uses a condom too, just to be safe. They both enjoy it, but they decide not to do it again. They keep that night as a special secret between them, which makes them feel even closer to each other. So what do you think about this? Was it wrong for them to have sex?”
Haidt’s experiment showed that people will continually try to proclaim that there is something inherently wrong with this scenario. For example, a subjects objected that there was a risk of genetic birth defects or that it would damage the siblings’ relationship with one another, even though the scenario explicitly states that they used two types of contraception and that the experience made the siblings even closer. Even when all logical refutes were exhausted, subjects frequently maintained that they still felt that something was wrong with the scenario—they just did not know how to articulate their objection. The key word here is “feel”: Haidt’s moral dumbfounding experiment (along with his other extensive research in moral psychology) indicates that the human perception of morality is intuitively ingrained, but that we are under the illusion that our moral judgments are completely logical because we can easily rationalizing them.
Returning to the concept of disgust as an evolved trait, Jonathan Haidt has proposed that disgust is a key component in one of the five “moral foundations of politics:” sanctity (the other foundations being caring, fairness, loyalty, and authority). Disgust’s evolutionary benefits are manifest in cultures all around the world, as disgust has been repeatedly associated with the morally constructed concepts of sanctity and divinity. Moral concepts often impact people’s political beliefs, so disgust serves as a moral emotion in addition to its practical evolutionary function of avoiding contamination and disease, and why it needs to be scrutinized when applied in a sociopolitical context.
Haidt’s psychological survey “The Disgust Scale” reveals that people who identify as socially conservative have a higher average “disgust score” than people who identify as socially liberal. This data suggests two possible interpretations: conservatives tend to rely more strongly on their intuitive reactions when making political decisions, and/or conservatives are more sensitive to “disgusting” entities, therefore having more extreme intuitive reactions. Disgust has been a particular subject of academic contention in the ongoing political dichotomy regarding the gay rights movement. Here, we turn to the work of philosopher and legal scholar Martha Nussbaum, who writes on the “politics of disgust.”
The Politics of Disgust — Jon Catlin
Nussbaum’s contention with disgust is not the moral convictions of certain individuals—as a staunch defender of civil liberties, she welcomes diversity of belief. The problem arises when particular morals—here, non-rational feelings of disgust—infiltrate our legal and political systems, which depend upon rational decision-making. For example, many conservative speakers and advertisements for the passage of Proposition 8, which repealed the right of same-sex couples to marry in the state of California in 2008, drew upon a rhetoric of bodily contamination and moral decline. This is the same rhetoric used by proponents of racial segregation and the Jim Crow laws, which were deemed unconstitutional decades ago. In present-day America, there still exists a full-scale “politics of disgust.” Nussbaum writes:
For a long time, our society, like many others, has confronted same-sex orientations and acts with a politics of disgust, as many people react to the uncomfortable presence of gays and lesbians with a deep aversion akin to that inspired by bodily wastes, slimy insects, and spoiled food—and then cite that very reaction to justify a range of legal restrictions, from sodomy laws to bans on same-sex marriage. Partisans of the politics of disgust can barely stand to think about what [gay people do]; they say, “that stuff makes me want to throw up,” and turn away from the reality of gay life as from a loathsome contaminant to the body politic… Although this political approach has lost ground in recent years, it continues to influence the ways in which many people think.
Disgust is objectionable to Nussbaum foremost because it constitutes “a fundamental refusal of another person’s full humanity”—“humanity” being the central word of her philosophical career. Just like other distinctions between human and less-human or non-human on racial, ethnic, or religious grounds, distinguishing on the basis of sexual orientation is fundamentally at odds with democratic practice, which necessitates a one-to-one understanding of equality and mutual respect. She writes, “Disgust, so described, seems pretty nasty… One might therefore think it a bad basis for lawmaking in a democratic society.”
Yet, numerous thinkers up to the present day grant disgust a kind of moral and political intelligence that is deeply disturbing. For example, Lord Patrick Devlin, a prominent legal scholar in 1950s Britain, held that disgust from an average member of society was a good reason to make a practice illegal, even if it did not cause harm to third parties. When the Wolfenden Commission sought to decriminalize consensual same-sex sexual acts in Britain, Devlin successfully resisted their efforts, arguing that society would “decay from within” if individuals did not follow their instincts of disgust.
Nussbaum writes most directly against Leon Kass, Nussbaum’s former colleague at the University of Chicago, who served from 2001 to 2005 as the head of President George W. Bush’s President’s Council on Bioethics. Kass argues that “repugnance has an inherent ‘wisdom’: it is a device implanted in our natures that steers us away from destructive and terrible choices.” Nussbaum cites numerous legal cases where such an “animus”—often plainly religious in nature—has been utilized by opponents of same-sex marriage all the way up to the United States Supreme Court. She writes, “Although the influence of such appeals peaked, perhaps, in the 1980s and 1990s, and has since been declining, the politics of disgust continues to exercise influence, often in more subtle and unstated ways.” Disgust used as an animus explicitly violates equal protection of the laws, the legal protection that forms the backbone of Nussbaum’s critique of disgust-inspired legislation. Moreover, “It also violates a fundamental paradigm of political rationality: laws made in response to such animus lack a rational basis.”
Despite the blatant prejudice and unconstitutionality of such legislation, Nussbaum worries that “Disgust… has not gone away, it has gone underground.” Though a politics of disgust appears less now than twenty years ago in legislative bodies and courts, many non-government groups still popularly utilize it to sway public opinion on same-sex marriage.
The Constitutional Tradition
One of the strongest arguments against the use of disgust as a political tool is its potential to be used against vulnerable groups. Nussbaum writes that disgust “expresses a universal human discomfort with bodily reality, but then uses that discomfort to target and subordinate vulnerable minorities.” Due to disgust’s deep psychological roots, it is natural to feel disgust at many parts of human life, but many conservative moralists then project that disgust at outsiders who by rational standards have committed no offense.
In opposition to disgust, Nussbaum proposes two even more widely held political emotions: respect and empathy. Making the parallel to religion, Nussbaum compares the way that religious freedom has long been tolerated according to John Stuart Mill’s “harm principle,” which suggest that that people should be free to act and believe what they will, so long as they do not violate the rights of others. This “sphere of freedom” is crucial to any democracy, since “The object of respect is the person, not the person’s actions.” Tolerating, and even respecting, another person does not demand approving of his or her actions. In the spirit that Mill pioneered in his influential essay On Liberty in 1859, Nussbaum suggests that fundamental freedoms, such as that of religion and conscience are, “characteristics intimately connected with a person’s search for a meaningful life, an therefore something whose abridgement or legal restriction inflicts profound psychic damage.” Due to its centrality to a meaningful life, Nussbaum logically extends this freedom to sexual orientation, a move Mill himself might have made if he wrote today. Nussbaum writes:
A politics of equal respect is also by now the norm in the areas of gender, race, and disability, where we have gradually come to see that deep-seated characteristics are not a legitimate basis for the systematic legal subordination of a group. Many people now feel that sexual orientation is in important ways like those other areas. Like race and gender, sexual orientation is a deep-seated characteristic that has profound meaning for people, affecting their possibilities for self-expression and happiness; it should not be turned into a systematic source of social inequality.
From the time of its writing, the United States constitution has rejected “collectivist” thinking—i.e. the general will—and instead upheld individual rights as the fundamental site of protection. Mill’s species of constitutional politics is highly anticollectivist: “it says that the interests of the majority camp cannot trump such basic entitlements of the individuals.” This belief extends across the entire American political spectrum as a basic tenet of classical liberalism—the school of thought on which democracy and our constitution are based. Though neither liberals nor conservatives are generally in favor of systematic inequality, conservatives’ tendency to act according to convictions of disgust puts them in opposition to the constitution and rational democracy.
The Power of Imagination
We have outlined the problem and reasons for the extension of same-sex rights, but what is the solution? Here, Nussbaum proposes something that few philosophers, and even fewer legal scholars, would suggest: imagination. Referring to the young gay man whose words begin her book, she writes:
That “terrified” gay teenager needs, and deserves, equal respect, and a sphere of liberty equal to that enjoyed by others. Before he is likely to get these things, however, something else also has to be present in our world: the capacity to imagine his experience and that of other gay and lesbian citizens. Disgust relies on moral obtuseness. It is possible to view another human being as a slimy slug or a piece of revolting trash only if one has never made a serious good-faith attempt to see the world through that person’s eyes or to experience that person’s feelings.
Due to the group-oriented structure of human societies and psychological tendencies toward disgust and fear of people different from oneself, it takes genuine effort to identify others as human beings equivalent to oneself. As Nussbaum puts it, “Humanity does not automatically reveal itself to strangers.” Disgust, meanwhile, is an effortless, intuitive, biologically programmed rejection of a stranger’s humanness. It seems so natural to reject outsiders because that is indeed the natural response. Confrontation with the other forces us to make a subconscious choice––one that we all make whether we are aware of it or not: “will we impute full equal humanity to that shape, or something less?” Only by active exercise of the imagination can we overcome the default, easy act of refusing humanity and seeing others as “somethings” rather than “someones.”
The most widespread advertisements endorsing California’s Proposition 8 exhibit, above all else, a profound lack of imagination. The videos offer boring, moralistic arguments that refer to gay people not as common citizens with families, friends, and children, but as a kind of conspiracy trying to undermine the moral traditions and laws of everyday Americans. Another genre of videos shows parents, teachers, and especially children confused about same-sex marriage. Children, these ads suggest, would come home from school confused and morally disoriented after learning about same-sex marriage in sex education class and demand explanations about sex and gay people at an early age. What these ads try to portray as a moral failing akin to their child learning naughty words on the playground seems to me the perfect opportunity to teach that child toleration and empathy, just as our schools do with race and religion from an early age, rather than to feed them unimaginative and dogmatic tales.
Imagination is a hazy abstraction, but Nussbaum’s use of it against disgust relies on vivid, individual experiences. The social factor Nussbaum singles out for best advancing the case for gay rights is the coming out of so many gay, lesbian, and queer individuals in the past few decades. Today, most people know at least one gay person, be they a co-worker, friend, cousin, brother, sister, parent, or child. This brings the abstract moral debate of right and wrong into direct confrontation with lived experience. Nussbaum writes:
[Each person coming out has] a personal narrative, an individual name, and eyes into which people have been accustomed to look with the belief that they see humanity in there. When the person then comes out as lesbian or gay, it is usually difficult to withdraw those ascriptions of humanity in favor of the old disgust-laden picture.
In contrast to the unimaginative ads endorsing Prop 8, many ads in defense of same-sex marriage draw upon empathy and personal relationships. In one anti-Prop 8 video produced by celebrity Kathy Griffin, people speak out for their gay and lesbian friends: “Ok, we all have friends, right? Now, if somebody was going to hurt your friend, you wouldn’t let them, you would say something, you would do something… When I heard about California’s Proposition 8, I thought of my friend Howie, Sam, Rachel and Percy, Sarah.” These speakers, having come to respect their friends as fellow human beings, understand that they deserve the same basic rights, and are unwilling to shame and degrade their friends in defense of vague abstractions such as “family values.”
Personal coming-out narratives are a crucial means to society collectively overcoming disgust, but meta-narratives are even better. Some of the most wide-reaching gay narratives are those from the TV show Will & Grace, one of the most successful sitcoms of the 1990s, which featured two gay men in leading roles, one stereotypical and frivolous, and one serious and successful. By showing gay men living normal lives and acting as productive members of society, their otherness was diminished, and the barriers of heteronormative media bias were greatly reduced across the industry. Today, TV shows like ABC’s Modern Family and NBC’s forthcoming The New Normal present gay individuals as ordinary spouses and even parents from their generation alongside straight white and inter-racial couples.
The data supports Nussbaum’s call for imagination, empathy, and personal relationships. From 2007 to 2012, the number of Americans who reported that they had a family member or close friend who was gay or lesbian increased from 45% to 60%, though the number of gay and lesbian people has probably not changed . Correspondingly, the percentage of Americans who believe that same sex marriage should be recognized has changed from 44% to 54%, and the percentage of those recognizing that homosexuality is not a choice has increased from 56% to 58%. As more LGBT people feel comfortable coming out to their families and friends, there is a chain reaction of empathy and increased understanding for the reality of queer life.
Both personal encounters with gay people and a less heteronormative media chip away at the politics of disgust and cultivate what Nussbaum calls a “politics of humanity”—“a political attitude that combines respect with curiosity and imaginative attunement.” Here is where Nussbaum steers away from the well-trodden track of classical liberalism. As Nussbaum has written elsewhere on the topic of religious equality, mere toleration is not a sufficient level of connection for democracy to thrive in a pluralistic society. She writes:
Something else, something closer to love, must also be involved. First of all, we are unlikely to achieve full respect for one another unless we can do something else first—see the other as a center of perception, emotion, and reason, rather than an inert object… Respect without this attitude is certainly not a complete basis for political action in a diverse society: for only imagination animates the cold and abstract categories of morality and law, turning them into ways we can live together. So, respect is politically incomplete without imagination.
In a sound philosophical move, Nussbaum brings imagination and love into the arena of legal rights. Nussbaum recognizes that what we actually want out of our democracy is not merely distant, meaningless toleration, but compassionate, empathetic respect in everyday life. And she is prepared to wait for that: “Ultimately, the process involves transformation at the level of the human heart, and that means that it requires great patience.” Most importantly for Nussbaum, this sense of imagination should be practiced by judges when making legal decisions around same-sex marriage. The politics of disgust finds a home in the overly formal, lifeless world of the law, so judges must learn to empathize as the constitution has long encouraged them to.
Disgust is, above all else, a profoundly stupid emotion. In this respect, it is highly related to fear in its universally experienced and neurologically rooted irrationality. As Martha Nussbaum said in a recent interview, fear’s supposed moral intelligence “focuses narrowly on the person’s own survival, which is useful in evolutionary terms, but not so useful if one wants a good society” . Attributing any kind of moral intelligence to disgust is, in the clearest psychological terms, attributing intelligence to an animalistic and non-rational part of the brain that regulates taste and digestion. Though arguments can be formed on the basis of disgust, they are, as Jonathan Haidt’s research shows, most often only false rationalizations for subconscious impulses.
Knowing this about human nature, it seems unsurprising that each of the dozen-plus states that have held public referenda (i.e. open polls) to decide this issue have denied same-sex couples the right to marry—one of our most essential and treasured rights. Unless a voter has a close friend or relative who is gay or has for other reasons genuinely tried to empathize with what it might feel like to be gay, that voter is likely to react with disgust to the idea of gay life and vote, on irrational and only nominally moralistic grounds, against same-sex marriage. To continue to deny constitutional rights on the basis of what has been scientifically proven to be an irrational impulse is well beneath the most prosperous nation in human history.
Though disgust may be a completely natural emotion, we must acknowledge its threat to a flourishing pluralistic society. In its place, a politics of humanity and respect must be cultivated across social and political lines, just as it has been for the equal rights of women and racial minorities for decades. Particularly similar to the case for gay marriage is that for interracial marriage, which was illegal in the United States for most of its history, and legalized in the Deep South as recently as 1967. In that case, it took an active legislature and Supreme Court to overcome disgust’s unfortunate place in our democratic process, and the same must happen here. Knowing what we do about disgust, state and federal high courts are the appropriate forum for these decisions, not ballot boxes or legislatures biased by prospects of reelection. Though support for gay rights has been quickly growing in the media and social sphere, it is the duty of the judicial system to overcome individual feelings of disgust and grant same-sex couples the right to marry. The trickle-down effect of empathy and acceptance will be well worth the wait, both for the LGBT community and our democracy more broadly.
Jon Catlin is a second-year at the University of Chicago studying great books and the humanities. His ongoing scholarly project consists of mapping the impact of historical catastrophes on philosophical, religious, and literary traditions, with particular attention to the Holocaust. In-between issues of The Atlantic and The New Republic, Jon spends his time exploring libraries, teaching young people philosophy, and biking across Chicago.
Melissa is a sophomore at Northwestern University studying cognitive science. She is particularly interested in developmental psychopathology, neuroanatomy, and the cognitive processes involved in morality. Melissa enjoys painting/building/designing theatrical scenery, assisting with psychological research, and singing classical music. When she’s not busy with one of the aforementioned activities, she’s probably doodling pictures of pyramidal neurons or fighting for social justice.
 Martha Nussbaum. From Disgust to Humanity: Sexual Orientation and Constitutional Law. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010.
 “One Town’s War on Gay Teens,” Rolling Stone
 Jonathan Haidt’s project, YourMorals
 Daniel Kelly. Yuck!: The Nature and Moral Significance of Disgust. Cambridge: The MIT Press, 2011.
 “Americans’ attitudes toward gay community changing,” CNN Opinion Research Center
 Interview on The New Religious Intolerance (Harvard University Press, 2012) in the Boston Review
Additional sources: Martha Nussbaum speaks on the legal issues of sexual orientation and marriage and presents From Disgust to Humanity at the Harvard University Co-op Bookstore