Goodness Comes from the Gut, or Does It?

Is goodness a gift from God, the result of reasoned thought, or something else far more visceral? And if the gut reigns, then how can we ever pull ourselves out of the moral mud? Two reports this week offer perspective, and one even provides hope.

The first item is a Boston Globe article that explains the suddenly fashionable field of disgust studies. Drake Bennett writes:

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?

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.

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.

Bennett’s piece provides the best overview of the field I’ve seen, including detailed critiques of how the research is too limited. Whether or not this line of research ever brings forth sweet, edible fruit is still unknown.  The early results, though, raise fascinating questions.

The other item is a reader’s comment on Andrew Sullivan’s blog. In “Hawkers of 9/11 Porn,” the individual describes his experience in New York City on 9/11. He worked next to the World Trade Center, and saw and felt the planes hit. He watched as people fled the towers, and his first reaction was from the gut.

By that point I was cursing Muslims and Arabs and I just wanted them to die or leave our country.  I got through the day and the days after, learning that no one in my office had died.  However, a fireman I knew was killed, and eventually my brother-in-law died of cancer that may have been caused by the time in the pit.

But you know, after a few days my hatred of Muslims/Arabs went away.

It’s the second part of his comment that I find remarkable. How was he able to transcend his hatred so quickly? He explains that he eventually thought about his Muslim friends and business acquaintances.

Maybe also it’s the way I grew up, going to a Catholic school where as a white guy I was the minority (mostly Spanish), then playing basketball with mostly African-Americans, and then working with gay people. I came to realize that individuals cannot be judged by the actions of a few.

Taking the two news items together raises many questions. Is this one person merely a remarkable individual who can see clearly when most humans can’t? Are anger and hatred different emotions than disgust, and thus, easier to override? Are goodness and morality too complicated to be reduced to a single emotion, even one as strong as disgust? Why can some people overcome their negative feelings and others can’t?

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2 Responses to Goodness Comes from the Gut, or Does It?

  1. For me, the best part of living in Washington, DC, for so many years is that I got to know a lot of people whose backgrounds were very different from mine. I worked for years for a local nonprofit and spent a lot of time in meetings where I’d be the only white person in the room. As the person writing on Sullivan’s blog said, my experience made it a lot easier to relate to people as individuals, instead of making assumptions about them based on skin color or ethnic background.

    One of the most important societal arguments for affirmative action programs that increase diversity is that as people from different backgrounds get to know each other, they stop thinking of each other as “other.” I think there’s a direct path to goodness here. If you only know one person who is, say, Nigerian or Muslim or Roman Catholic or something else that you’re not, and you don’t like that person (for what might be very good reasons), it’s hard not to assume that you wouldn’t like anyone else from that background. But if you know a lot of Nigerian (etc.) people, and you like some of them very much, it’s a lot easier to recognize that one obnoxious individual does not define a whole group.

  2. dianesilver says:

    I agree. It’s hard for disgust or stereotypes to work when you know people, particularly if you have a wide range of experience like you describe, Nancy.

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