In the first of a series of posts on this topic, I address some things that don’t change, here.
Moral philosophers and psychologists discuss a profound influence on the act of making moral judgements, an influence which is pervasive, convincing, and irrational: the phenomenon the literature calls “disgust.” Everyone knows the experience of whiffing rotten milk or witnessing crude behavior. There are experiences that just make you say “Ew!” In some cases, we then attach moral weight to that feeling. The problem is that this powerful intuitive sense isn’t always right. In fact, sometimes it’s hard to explain why it triggers us the way it does.
Consider a series of examples:
- Eating bugs. Normalized in many cultures of the world and arguably good for the global environment, many of us get squeamish at the idea of ingesting creepy crawlies, even cooked.
- Eating synthetic meat. Scientists can, in a lab, grow a steak. Using cells of a living animal and a regenerative stimulant, scientists can recreate this dietary staple, and do so in a way that neutralizes much of the concern about cruelty to animals. But given the choice, many (even non-vegetarian) people are too turned off by the idea to give up the real thing.
- Eating synthetic human. Think this through. #2 can be replicated with a swab of the cells of a human cheek. No one dies, and there’s nothing fundamentally unhealthy about it, but scientists could plausibly create edible human matter. See? That’s the feeling of disgust you’re having right now. Such an idea is, and I’m carefully choosing the scientific term here, super-gross, and I’m never going to try it, but it’s hard to explain morally why it would have to be morally wrong.
So what is that phenomenon of disgust that we feel? Being overpoweringly revulsed by something feels a lot like a moral intuition, but if one tries to discern a moral principle that lies behind the feeling of disgust, or the moral facts that disgust identifies, it’s hard to pin them down. That’s because there aren’t any. Disgust alone is not a moral radar.
Jonathan Haidt, professor at New York University, has been studying disgust for decades. In The Righteous Mind (2012), Haidt identifies six different loci of moral decision making, and one of them he calls “purity.” We make moral decisions about what we think is pure. From a sense for purity comes the reaction of disgust. He and other evolutionary psychologists trace a sense of disgust back to a survival-instinct’s self-protection against pathogens, but over time it has been transferred to a moral inclination to protect the social order. Haidt has developed the “Disgust Scale,” an instrument for measuring to what degree individuals experience disgust (spoiler alert: we don’t all experience it to the same degree or at the same things). He says, curiously, that feelings of disgust are stronger in people who vote conservatively rather than liberally.
Disgust is a good indicator of one thing – it tells you how you relate to a subject. I dislike bugs…deeply. I feel it whenever I see one in the bathroom and call out for my wife or children to come and kill it. I am perfectly willing to endure the household ridicule as long as I don’t have to touch bugs. What disgust is not a good indicator of is the moral worth of the subject. God made bugs, and for all I know, loves them. I can’t see how, but maybe. They certainly aren’t evil, even the ones that look like they crawled out of hell (to take up lodging in my bathroom). Disgust doesn’t tell me anything about the value of the thing in itself, only the nature of my relationship to it.
It’s also entirely possible to be disgusted by something that is actually morally wrong. There really is a sense of propriety that we develop, and violations of it will set off our disgust alarm. Some of this comes from the psychologically healthy, genetically encoded inclination towards empathy which makes us dislike seeing someone else being unjustly hurt. We may be disgusted by injustice. But the moral wrongfulness of someone being unjustly hurt is something that can be explained rationally on moral principles; it doesn’t rest on negative feelings alone. If anything, the negative emotions are a healthy trigger that make us investigate the moral value of a state of affairs, but they can’t be left on their own to answer the question.
Think about ways that disgust goes wrong or is inconsistent:
- Watching an autopsy can make one feel totally disgusted, but scientific research on cadavers has made vast contributions to medicine.
- It’s not that long ago in American history that people responded with disgust to interracial marriages. In certain cultures today, romantic relationships across social castes are met with disgust.
- People with OCD, especially fixated on cleanliness, feel disgust at things and to degrees that a healthy person would not.
- A 1997 study (by Rozin) of vegetarians shows higher feelings of disgust towards meat among vegetarians motivated by ethics than among those motivated by health concerns.
In sum, disgust alone can’t lay a moral foundation.
Transgenderism, Disgust, and Morality
The relevance of the phenomenon of disgust to the discussion of transgenderism is that disgust (or choose a term that suggests a milder aversion – any feeling that it must be wrong without a rational grounding) is that this feeling doesn’t get to cast a deciding vote on the issue. If, for the Christian, transgenderism is a moral issue, it can’t be a moral issue based on feelings of squeamishness. Nor can a thinker with any integrity try to craft a rationale around the feeling to justify it; any moral argument must stand independent of feelings of unease.
This is not to suggest that everyone who deems elective gender transitioning immoral is motivated by feelings without rationale (I’m going to move on in other posts to look at those rationale). But some are. For some people, the whole idea of gender transition just feels weird and wrong. I’m trying to sweep this mistake out of the way before we get to the heart of the issue.
Issues of gender and sexuality are often linked to intense feelings, social mores, guilt, anxiety, self-esteem issues, and the like, and it’s hard to get through that river of emotion to do the hard work of moral reasoning. But the truth is, when we talk about people with gender dysphoria, we’re talking about people who are made by God and loved by God, and they deserve that difficult river-crossing. We owe this slim minority of people, a fraction of one percent, the compassion it takes not to condemn them to silence and alienation, abuse and suicide. For the Christian, whatever moral conclusions we draw on the issue, it’s not enough to feel disgusted and walk away. We have to get past those feelings to ask what is really right and wrong and how we know.
“When the Pharisee who had invited him saw this, he said to himself, ‘If this man were a prophet, he would know who is touching him and what kind of woman she is – that she is a sinner.” – Luke 7:39