Defending Disgust: Why Disgust Is Morally Beneficial


Jason A. Clark, Institute of Cog Science, University of OsnabrueckPhilip A. Powell,  Institute for Economic Analysis of Decision-Making, University of Sheffield


powellMany argue that moral disgust developed as a regulator of social behavior, and that it still dutifully serves that purpose (Tybur et al. 2013).  However, a growing number have criticised disgust as a morally objectionable emotion in modern society, emphasizing features that, while adaptive in response to pathogens, render disgust unsuitable for policing morality (Nussbaum 2009; Kelly 2011; Bloom 2013).  These include: cognitive and behavioral inflexibility, the generation of “dumbfounded” moral judgments lacking reasons, insensitivity to contextual factors and reappraisal, dehumanization, and a focus on the whole person, rather than their actions (Schnall et al. 2008; Russell & Giner-Sorolla 2011).

Critics of disgust compare it unfavorably with other moral emotions (especially anger), which they hold to be more flexible and reasoned, and lump it together with related emotions such as shame, which are often viewed negatively for similar reasons.   Specifically moral critiques of disgust have been largely qualitative, based on historical case studies and anecdotal examples.  Arguments condemning disgust as a moral emotion emphasise disgust’s negative role in instances of stigmatization, such as homophobia, racism, and genocide.  Disgust is involved in such scenarios, but we doubt that it is always and uniquely involved.  Building on a series of papers arguing that disgust can be a morally beneficial emotion (Clark forthcoming; Clark & Fessler, forthcoming) we maintain that disgust can play a positive role in morality, and that the evidence for condemning moral disgust is often either lacking, or misinterpreted.  More specifically:

(1) Causal relations between disgust and moral judgement are not well established. Evidence suggests that disgust can amplify the severity of moral judgements, but there is insufficient evidence to conclude that it has the power to causally engender an unreasoned, “dumbfounded” moral verdict, or that it is a “moralising emotion” per se (Pizzarro et al. 2011), i.e., that acts or agents that elicit disgust are automatically seen as immoral in some sense.   Some research suggests an alternative temporal and causal ordering.  Testing participants’ reactions to moral violations that involved inherently disgusting elements, Yang and colleagues (2013) used a Go/No-Go paradigm and measured lateralized readiness potentials to determine the temporal order of physical disgust and moral information processing, in which participants were asked to respond with ‘‘yes’’ or ‘‘no’’ concerning the physical disgust and moral wrongness of a social act.  They found that the moral wrongness of an action was processed before any physical disgust, and suggest that (a) moral disgust does not require the presence of physical disgust elicitors, and (b) moral reactions may be equally (or more) important to humans than physical disgust.

Fessler et al. (2003) surveyed participants concerning meat consumption, reasons for meat avoidance, and disgust sensitivity, and found that (a) meat consumption was positively correlated with disgust sensitivity, and (b) individuals who avoided meat on moral grounds were not more sensitive to disgust than those who avoided meat for other reasons, such as health. This suggest that moral vegetarians’ disgust reactions to meat are more a consequence, than an antecedent, of moral beliefs.  Hence, moral disgust may function as an affective modulator of moral judgements (preparing the agent to act in appropriate ways) but not the causal impetus,.  Furthermore, other emotions (including anger) are guilty of modulating moral judgements, so condemning disgust on this basis alone is tantamount to censuring all (moral) emotions.

(2) Disgust is more flexible in its sensitivity to context and reappraisal than commonly ackowledged. Even simple forms of disgust are highly sensitive to the context in which stimuli are presented. Context alone can determine whether an animal will consume food, and the extinction of disgust responses are dependent on learned context (Viar-Paxton & Olatunji 2012); e.g., an animal may develop an aversion to a particular food in one context where it is paired with nausea, but be willing to consume the same food in another context (Reilly & Schachtman 2008).  For instance,  people’s reactions to the (similar) odors of dirty socks and parmesan cheese may vary when given contextual information about the source.  Also, disgust is sensitive to our motivational states (e.g., hunger or sexual arousal), and moral disgust continually interacts with opposing moral emotions like compassion and empathy.  Further, moral disgust appears sensitive to cognitive reappraisal. This is dramatically illustrated by the cognitive reframing displayed by survivors of the Andes 1972 flight disaster, many of whom elevated the acts of cannibalisms in which they engaged to the ritual of Holy Communion and interpreted it as a spiritual experience, thereby reducing their physical and moral disgust (Reed 1974).  Imaging experiments have shown moral disgust to be mitigated by perceptions of blame, controllability, or deliberate efforts to empathize with stigmatized individuals  (Harris & Fiske 2007; Krendl et al. 2013).  Moreover, Feinberg et al. (2013) suggest that differences in the role of disgust in conservative vs. liberal morality may lie in liberals’ ability to regulate and reappraise disgust, rather than simply experiencing less moral disgust than conservatives.

(3) The focus on extremely negative effects of disgust obscures its role in more ordinary and/or morally commendable values.  Critics of disgust focus almost exclusively on disgust’s role in moral behaviors that most readers will condemn (e.g., homophobia).  However, moral disgust has also been shown to occur in responses to violations such as others’ hypocrisy, lying, cheating, racism, sycophancy, exploitation of the weak, unfairness, betrayal, and theft.  Critics would argue that disgust is not suited as a response to any moral violations, but the case is harder to make when confronted with the potential positive contribution of disgust to values with which we identify.

(4) To the extent that disgust is more inflexible than other emotions, this can be beneficial in moral judgment. Emerging evidence suggests that disgust is directed primarily towards more stable features of individuals’ character or identity, rather than towards specific acts (Giner-Sorolla & Chambers in prep; Clark forthcoming).  This is often presented as a vice, but in some cases we are better off relying on information about the individual’s social category. The ability to negatively assess individuals’ character and respond appropriately is an important capacity (Ciaramelli et al. 2013), whose loss can lead people into negative relationships, as is illustrated by those with damage to the medial prefrontal cortex, which is thought to mediate such responses.

(5)  Empirical evidence that disgust dehumanizes is limited, and more lauded emotions like anger are also likely to produce dehumanization. Despite much qualitative research linking disgust to dehumanization, this causal link has only recently been tested.  Using arbitrarily created outgroups (over- and under-estimators in a guessing task) Buckels and Trapnell (2013) demonstrated that induced disgust increased implicit associations of the outgroup with animals.  Interestingly, however, they found that, while disgusted particpants showed the greatest shift in this respect, all participants showed this implicit dehumanizing bias, whether or not they underwent a disgust induction  This suggests that dehumanization may be a more general and fundamental part of our group psychology, rather being disgust-specific.  There is also little evidence concerning whether other emotions also engender dehumanization. Anger has been shown to cause implicit negativity toward outgroups (DeSteno et al. 2004), and Russell and Giner-Sorolla have preliminary evidence that anger can also produce dehumaization (Giner-Sorolla & Russell, in prep.).

In sum, we encourage readers not to dismiss disgust as a problematic moral emotion, but to take a closer look at the empirical evidence on which such a critique is based. We have argued above that there are significant gaps in such evidence, and maintain that disgust can have a positive/adaptive role in morality under certain circumstances.  


Bloom, P. (2013). Just Babies: The Origins of Good and Evil. Random House LLC.


Buckels, E. E., & Trapnell, P. D. (2013). Disgust facilitates outgroup dehumanization. Group Processes & Intergroup Relations.


Ciaramelli, E., Sperotto, R. G., Mattioli, F., & di Pellegrino, G. (2013). Damage to the ventromedial prefrontal cortex reduces interpersonal disgust. Social cognitive and affective neuroscience, 8(2), 171-180.


Clark, J. (forthcoming).  Digging disgust out of the dumpster: A neuropsychological defense of self- and other-directed disgust as a moral virtue, in Powell, P, Simpson, J. and Overton, P. (eds.) The Revolting Self: Perspectives on the Psychological and Clinical Implications of Self-Directed Disgust,Karnac Books.


Clark, J. & Fessler, D. (forthcoming).  The role of disgust in norms, and the role of norms in disgust research: Why liberals shouldn’t be morally disgust by moral disgust.  TOPOI.


DeSteno, D., Dasgupta, N., Bartlett, M. Y., & Cajdric, A. (2004). Prejudice From Thin Air The Effect of Emotion on Automatic Intergroup Attitudes. Psychological Science, 15(5), 319-324.


Fessler, D. M. T., Arguello, A. P., Mekdara, J. M., and Macias, R. (2003). Disgust sensitivity and meat consumption: a test of an emotivist account of moral vegetarianism. Appetite, 41, 31-41.


Giner-Sorolla, R., and Russell, P.S. (in prep.). Not just disgust: Fear and anger attitudes also predict intergroup dehumanization.


Giner-Sorolla, R., & Chambers, C. (in prep).  Beyond Purity: Moral Disgust at the Desire to Harm.


Harris, L. T., & Fiske, S. T. (2007). Social groups that elicit disgust are differentially processed in mPFC. Social cognitive and affective neuroscience, 2(1), 45-51.


Kelly, D. R. (2011). Yuck!: the nature and moral significance of disgust. The MIT Press.


Krendl, A. C., Moran, J. M., & Ambady, N. (2013). Does context matter in evaluations of stigmatized individuals? An fMRI study. Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, 8(5), 602-608.


Nussbaum, M. C. (2009). Hiding from humanity: Disgust, shame, and the law. Princeton University Press.


Pizarro, D., Inbar, Y., & Helion, C. (2011). On disgust and moral judgment. Emotion Review, 3, 267-268.


Reed, P. P. (1974). Alive: The story of the Andes survivors. HarperCollins: New York.


Reilly, S. & Schachtman, T.R. (2008) Conditioned taste aversion: neural and behavioral processes. Oxford University Press, USA.


Russell, P. S., & Giner-Sorolla, R. (2011a). Moral anger is more flexible than moral disgust. Social Psychological and Personality Science, 2(4), 360-364.


Russell, P. S., & Giner-Sorolla, R. (2011b). Moral anger, but not moral disgust, responds to intentionality. Emotion, 11(2), 233.


Schnall, S., Haidt, J., Clore, G. L., & Jordan, A. H. (2008). Disgust as embodied moral judgment. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 34, 1096-1109.


Tybur, J. M., Lieberman, D., Kurzban, R., & DeScioli, P. (2013). Disgust: Evolved function and structure. Psychological Review, 120, 65-84.


Viar-Paxton, M. A., & Olatunji, B. O. (2012). Context effects on habituation to disgust-relevant stimuli. Behavior Modification, 5, 705-722.


Yang, Q., Yan, L., Luo, J., Li, A., Zhang, Y., Tian, X., & Zhang, D. (2013). Temporal dynamics of disgust and morality: An event-related potential study. PLoS ONE, 8, e65094.


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