What is Moral Disgust?

Students

2020
College

Faculty

Professor of Psychology

Project Summary

Darwin wrote in his The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals that disgust is “the sensation that refers to something revolting.” Accordingly, disgust is generally a visceral feeling related to our sense of taste or smell.

However, disgust in today’s age is used to describe several items or situations that are not inherently “disgusting.” Therefore, disgust can be referred to as an exaptation, a trait that has been co-opted for use other than the one for which natural selection has built it. This has given rise to the phrase “moral disgust,” which the Free Dictionary defines as “a popular term for the nearly universal repugnance people feel toward extremely bad conduct-e.g., child abuse, animal beating, political corruption.”

My mentor Dr. Paul Rozin’s original claim was that the emotion contempt is directly linked to violations of community, anger is directly linked to violations of autonomy, and disgust is linked with violations of divinity (which is abbreviated as CAD). After reading several arguments, we recognized that there are six non-mutually exclusive explanations that could explain moral disgust.

  1. CAD, or that disgust is directly linked to violations of divinity (the original claim)
  2. All moral violations involve harm, so anger is the main moral emotion.
  3. Moral disgust is directly involved with violations that involve “pathogens” or bodily functions (i.e. wet situations).
  4. Disgust is felt when a moral violation is done to another person, whereas anger is felt when a moral violation is done to you.
  5. Disgust reflects on moral character, whereas anger reflects the action or consequences.
  6. Anger and disgust are equivalent moral emotions.

The goal of our project is to test these explanations.

From this experience, I have gained extensive knowledge on the topic of moral disgust, and have come to understand that moral psychology is a very complex and abstract field. Throughout this project, I have had the chance to read several articles discussing different viewpoints on moral disgust. Aside from learning about the field, this research experience has allowed me to learn more about SPSS, Qualtrics, and Excel. Doing research has allowed me to think and analyze in a new, more innovative manner. Typically, as a student, I am given the problem, and must find the concrete answer. Research is much different because you need to both determine the problem and the answer, and there will likely never be just one answer.

Because this research is very survey based (and therefore, results are not immediately found), my mentor, research partner, and I also decided to pursue another study which looked at the difference in variances in males and females in different physical and cognitive aspects. This project allowed me to gain knowledge in statistics and is also very relevant in the political atmosphere today.

Overall, I had a great experience through PURM this summer.

What is Moral Disgust?