A younger and dapper Derek Parfit, photographed by the late philosopher of mind Susan Hurley at Oxford in the 1980s.
What if our moral judgments are driven instead by more visceral human considerations? And what if one of those is not divine commandment or inductive reasoning, but simply whether a situation, in some small way, makes us feel like throwing up?This is the argument that some behavioral scientists have begun to make: that a significant slice of morality can be explained by our innate feelings of disgust. A growing number of provocative and clever studies appear to show that disgust has the power to shape our moral judgments.
Research has shown that people who are more easily disgusted by bugs are more likely to see gay marriage and abortion as wrong. Putting people in a foul-smelling room makes them stricter judges of a controversial film or of a person who doesn’t return a lost wallet. Washing their hands makes people feel less guilty about their own moral transgressions, and hypnotically priming them to feel disgust reliably induces them to see wrongdoing in utterly innocuous stories.
Today, psychologists and philosophers are piecing these findings together into a theory of disgust’s moral role and the evolutionary forces that determined it: Just as our teeth and tongue first evolved to process food, then were enlisted for complex communication, disgust first arose as an emotional response to ensure that our ancestors steered clear of rancid meat and contagion. But over time, that response was co-opted by the social brain to help police the boundaries of acceptable behavior.
i love it when science proves my moral presuppositions.
The claims of moral psychologists, however, are undermined by an excellent paper by G.A. Cohen called "Facts and Principles." He quite convincingly argues in the paper that the only way the status of normative claims can be affected by empirical data is if there is another normative principle that holds they are relevant. This very much limits the scope of the meta-ethical conclusions we can draw about morality from these kinds of experiments.
There is obviously little doubt, of course, that the moral claims that people make can be and are causally affected by other non-relevant factors. However, that has no bearing on the truth of those claims. Morality consists in further facts about states of affairs that give us reasons to do or not to do certain things. Mere disgust is not the kind of decisive reason that can override the truth of moral claims. It seems clear from this article that disgust can quite often get in the way of effective moral evaluation, but that does not entail that morality is reducible to disgust or emotion. This is a problem for applied ethics, not normative ethics or meta-ethics.
What ought we to do?
To answer this question, we don’t need to know either whether the past was worth it, or whether the whole of history will have been worth it. Suppose that the past was in itself so bad that, even if the future will be very good, human history will not have been worth it. If that were true, it would have been better if human beings had never existed. But that truth would have no practical implications. If the future would be worth it, we should not give up now.
As conditions change, we may need to make some changes in the way we think about morality. I have been arguing for one such change. Common-Sense Morality works best in small communities. When there are few of us, if we give to or impose on others great total benefits or harms, we must be affecting other people in significant ways, that would be grounds either for gratitude, or resentment. In small communities, it is a plausible claim that we cannot have harmed others if there is no one with an obvious complaint, or ground for resenting what we have done.
Until this century, most of mankind lived in small communities. What each did could affect only a few others. But conditions have now changed. Each of us can now, in countless ways, affect countless other people. We can have real effects on thousands or millions of people. When these effects are widely dispersed, they may either be trivial, or imperceptible. It now makes a great difference whether we continue to believe that we cannot have greatly harmed or benefited others unless there are people with obvious grounds for resentment or gratitude. …For the sake of small benefits to ourselves, or our families, each of us may deny others much greater total benefits, or impose on others much greater total harms. We may think this permissible because the effects on each of the others will be either trivial or imperceptible. If this is what we think, what we do will often be much worse for all of us.
If we cared sufficiently about effects on others, and changed our moral view, we would solve such problems. It is not enough to ask, ‘Will my act harm other people?’ Even if the answer is No, my act may still be wrong, because of its effects. The effects that it will have when it is considered on its own may not be the only relevant effects. I should ask, ‘Will my act be one of a set of acts that will together harm other people?’ The answer may be Yes. And the harm to others may be great.