Disgust, Ethics, and Violence

Feelings of disgust can provide emotional cover for racism, homophobia

Fresno Bee, June 18, 2016

  • Negative emotions interfere with moral judgment
  • Hate and disgust directed toward homosexuals is wrong
  • Education opens the mind and subdues the emotions

Inside-Out-DisgustAF-cropDisgust 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.


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.

Read more here: http://www.fresnobee.com/living/liv-columns-blogs/andrew-fiala/article84453892.html#storylink=cpy

Mean and Irrational Hatred of Homosexuals

Let’s grow beyond our mean-spirited mocking

   Andrew Fiala

Originally published 2012-06-02

The world would be much better off if we could learn to mind our own business and refrain from mocking others. But we are social animals. We meddle and mock as we vie for status in the herd. Unfortunately, it feels good to laugh together with friends while ridiculing others. We enjoy teaming up against the vulnerable.

This has something to do with our fascination with scandalous gossip about the private lives of other people. There is entertainment value in denunciation and condemnation. Many seem to enjoy outrage and indignation, especially when it is directed at marginalized others. We like to tease and torment the weak. Cruelty helps us feel powerful.

Mean-spirited jokes help “us” display power over “them.” The most famous story of jeering ridicule is found in the Christian tradition. Jesus, the marginalized outsider, is given a crown of thorns and taunted as “king of the Jews.” History is full of cruel stories in which the executioners laugh as they murder their victims, desecrating their bodies and dancing on their graves.

Scornful joking continues to plague us. Last year at this time, comedian Tracy Morgan said that if his son were gay, he would stab him to death. Morgan later apologized, saying he was just joking. Earlier this month, a pastor from North Carolina, Sean Harris, said that if your 4-year-old son behaved effeminately you should squash that behavior “like a cockroach.” Harris continued: “Dads, the second you see your son dropping the limp wrist, you walk over there and crack that wrist. Man up. Give him a good punch. OK? You are not going to act like that. You were made by God to be a male and you are going to be a male.” Harris later claimed he was joking–about the violence; but not about God’s condemnation of homosexuality.

It is difficult to understand why people hate homosexuals enough to joke about stabbing or beating them; or why anyone would think such jokes are funny. There are much more important things to worry about than other people’s sexuality. If anything falls into the “none of your business” category, it is other people’s sex lives.

But people are obsessed with the sex of others. Another North Carolina minister, Charles Worley, recently preached that homosexuals should be rounded up behind electrified fences where they would die out because they can’t reproduce. He went on to say, “It makes me pukin’ sick to think about … can you imagine kissing some man?” The obvious solution is not to imagine it, if you don’t like it. But we can’t seem to keep our imaginations to ourselves.

Some might blame our hypermediated culture and a degeneration of morals. Our culture does promote voyeuristic mockery as a spectator sport. Everywhere we turn there are comedians and pundits judging, condemning and ridiculing. Electronic communication makes it easier for us to deride and jeer each other behind the anonymity of a phony screen name.

But the problem of gossip, mockery and meddling has a long history. Some verses in the Bible condemn “idle talk.” The Stoic philosophers taught that it was wise to learn to hold your tongue. The Buddhists encouraged “right speech” and the virtue of silence.

There is also a virtue in minding your own business. The Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius explained, in good Stoic fashion, that it is difficult enough to tend to your own affairs. The hard work of ensuring that your own life is honorable leaves little time for gossip and meddling. He wrote, “To wonder what so-and-so is doing and why means a loss of opportunity for some other task.”

Social animals compete for status within the herd. They push the weak specimens around in a game of power. They laugh and bray and howl together. And as anyone who has a dog can confirm, they have a hard time keeping their noses out of each other’s private parts.

Of course, we ought to aspire to be better than animals. We are reasonable beings who can control our imaginations and our laughter. We don’t have to be cruel. We can hold our tongues and keep silent. And we really ought to keep our noses out of other people’s business.