Sunday, January 29, 2012

Disgust - The Unreliable Emotion

Disgust is a very strong aversion to a person, thing, action, event or other phenomenon – usually based on its lack morality, aesthetics, or popularity. It is rarely thought of as a form of pain, but rather a discomfort, even if an intense one. Nevertheless, it can be a form of pain, if we consider that feelings of disgust can generate strong queasiness or other aversive reactions.  In fact, this emotion is well discussed in the previous post.  However, this is such a strong emotion that it deserves a post of its own.  

We express disgust toward a number of things and situations:  body fluids, bad sights, bad smells, plus certain behaviors and attitudes. Specific examples of the latter include lack of empathy, hurtfulness toward others (whether directly or indirectly), selfishness, dishonesty, eccentricity, nonconformity, and a whole range of other human traits. This impulse may not be rational, but it likely does contribute greatly to the survival of neurological life for as long as the sentiment existed, although it does not come without its own problems.[1] Nevertheless these impulses did contribute greatly to neurological life’s survival for hundreds of millions of years.  Waste products of organisms are not mere byproducts of its body but contain many poisons and even dangerous microbes. 

We also feel disgust when we see unfair treatment of others who did not deserve such treatment, or partiality toward people we do not feel deserve such good treatment.   Dishonesty, theft, and so forth threaten others well-being – and potentially the organism’s own.  So does favoritism based on things other than merit.  As such it also exists to warn us that this person is potential exploitative or spreading misinformation harmful to others. Concerning the latter, the misinformation can be deliberate or not. In the former case, it is either a substantive lie or a lie by omission.  In the latter case, it is failing to account for all relevant facts or simply spreading unfounded rumors.  

Therefore, it’s reasonable to suppose that disgust is ultimately the emotion that drives many people away from the notion “we should not bring more people into existence”.   The problem is that disgust is not always a reliable indicator of how bad things really are, or even if a thing is truly bad at all. Regarding the latter, it is fairly common for us to react with disgust toward outright healthful foods.  Spinach, broccoli, and other green vegetables are a common object of distaste despite that we intellectually know that these are among the most healthy foods a person can eat.   Yet nobody would claim that our disgust toward such foods makes any sense from a survival perspective.  Therefore, despite the fact that our aversion to certain substances did evolve as a way to prevent harms to befall us (poisons, infections, etc), disgust turns out to be a fairly unreliable indicator of what is objectively hazardous for our life, health, self-esteem, or overall well-being; for it is too easily provoked by superficial appearances to allow a more sophisticated, objective analysis of the substance (or situation) facing us.

By contrast, many people find it pleasant to consumer what is essentially a mildly poisonous substance – alcoholic beverages.  It does not matter that they are only mildly poisonous – the fact remains that ethanol (the type of alcohol in beer, wine, etc) can easily cause averse reactions in a person, no matter how pleasant the alcoholic beverage may taste.   The same thing goes for consuming highly delicious yet highly unhealthy foods (e.g. junk food).  If our sense of disgust were a truly reliable guide for discerning what is bad for us, then our “untrained” instinct-based tastes should render high-fat sugar cookies as disgusting as many children find spinach, broccoli, and other healthy but bad tasting foods.  If our feelings of disgust are so misplaced with regard to foods, then how can we trust our sense of disgust with regard to ideas?

Regarding ideas, many ideas that seemed good and natural in earlier centuries or even earlier decades are now regarded with disgust today by a considerable segment of the population, and in some cases universally.  Most famously of all, slavery was once considered “natural” but is condemned everywhere these days. The same thing goes for discrimination and prejudices of many sorts (religious, racial, gender, sexual orientation, social class, and many other categories) and as of recent decades, bullying. More so-called natural behaviors are part of that list as well,  namely abortion and physician-assisted suicide.   Just as with our reactions toward foods, our sense of disgust seems hardly more reliable an indicator of whether ideas are right and wrong.  

While there are many ideas that are rightfully disgusting, there are also ideas that are objectively right even if they do generate disgust in us.  The same thing goes for the idea of antinatalism.   Regardless of how our primeval emotions respond to the idea of voluntarily extinguishing ourselves via voluntary non-procreation,  the idea does deserve serious merit regardless of how counterintuitive it may be at first glance.  Why antinatalism is defensible on logical grounds is discussed in the next post and on many subsequent posts throughout this blog – starting with David Benatar’s asymmetry between pleasure and pain.

No comments: