Disgust is a dangerous emotion. Racism, homophobia and other kinds of hate are emotional responses, closely linked to feelings of disgust. Moral development requires the mind to break free of reactionary emotions and the violence they provoke.
The Orlando shooter supposedly was disgusted by homosexuality. He may also have been disgusted by his own homosexual tendencies. The result was atrocity.
While most of us shuddered and grieved in the aftermath, some applauded. A Sacramento preacher, Roger Jimenez, suggested the government should round up homosexuals and “blow their brains out.” He said homosexuality is “disgusting.” Another preacher, Steven Anderson from Phoenix, welcomed the Orlando shootings as good news. He said, “Homosexuals are a bunch of disgusting perverts and pedophiles.”
These preachers claim that their hate is grounded in biblical principles. But the use of the word disgust points in a different direction. Disgust comes from the body. It is not the result of rational argument or biblical exegesis.
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Some ethicists claim that disgust is morally relevant. In bioethics, disgust has been identified as a source of insight. Leon Kass, a prominent bioethicist, suggests that the “yuck factor” points toward what he calls “the wisdom of repugnance.” When discussing human cloning, for example, Kass warns, “shallow are the souls that have forgotten how to shudder.”
But the shudder of the soul is merely a gut reaction. Disgust can be traced back to the body’s flight-or-fight response. It is related to fear of the foreign and unfamiliar. It is connected to anxiety about contamination and the desire for purity. The phobic reactions of our bodies should not cloud the judgment of our brains.
There are lots of things that seem yucky at first but can be justified upon further reflection. Organ transplantation provides an example. This was once viewed as creepy. But now nearly 80 people receive some kind of organ transplant in the U.S. every day.
There have been face, hand and even penis transplants. A Chinese doctor, Dr. Ren Xiaoping, wants to sever the head of a quadriplegic patient and attach it to a decapitated donor body.
The thought of a transplanted penis or head can make your stomach turn. But we can understand the value of using dead bodies to help the living. This seemingly gruesome surgery can help people live longer and better lives. And as long as the donors and recipients consent, it is none of our business.
Now some may claim that such transplants violate something essential about personal identity. Perhaps they even violate biblical principles. But any judgment here demands careful reflection. We need to make an argument instead of stating how we feel. And we need to realize that people will differ in their conclusions.
The same is true in discussions of homosexuality, politics or religion. Gut reactions are irrelevant. Moral judgment is complex. And people will differ – even with regard to what they find disgusting.
Now some view love as the antidote to hateful emotions. Love is an important emotion. But like all emotions, love is fickle. It quickly turns to loathing, as happens in crimes of passion, jealousy and revenge. Even love needs the guiding restraint of reason.
The real solution for hate, disgust and negative emotions is education. Familiarity diminishes revulsion. We learn that contamination is unlikely. We understand the justification of things. What was once repugnant soon becomes commonplace.
Kids learn to eat yucky vegetables. Medical students learn to dissect dead bodies. Transplant surgeries become commonly accepted. And most Americans have gotten used to homosexuality.
We may disagree about these things. But our disagreements should be rational – not emotional. Disgust blinds us. It interferes with empathy, kindness and compassion.
Understanding defuses disgust. Reason restrains the passions. And wisdom dawns when we realize that violence, hate and disgust are immature responses to a complex world.
This is why a broad and inclusive education is the key to moral progress. The body adapts as the mind is opened and the head masters the heart.
Emotional reaction can cause us to think that violence, anger and hate are a solution to our problems. But these are the very problems we must solve. We solve these problems by feeling less and thinking more, by cultivating reason and by subduing our reactionary emotions.