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

Random violence, education, and hope

Random acts of violence raise important questions about our culture

Fresno Bee, November 15, 2015

  • There are reasons for hope in the face of atrocity
  • Cultural violence may contribute to violent acts
  • Moral education provides a cure

There’s still a long road ahead to find peace

Fresno Bee, September 20, 2014

Thirty years ago the United Nations declared Sept. 21 as an International Day of Peace. We’ve still got a long way to go.


Human beings are the most violent animals on the planet. No other species kills its own members in large numbers on a regular basis. And yet, no other species reflects upon its own behavior or loves itself as much as we do. Hope for peace can be found in our capacity for reason and our ability to love.

Quite a few people claim that love provides the path to peace. Bumper sticker wisdom proclaims, “No love, no peace — know love, know peace.” Martin Luther King explained that love cuts through evil and hate. He said, “Love is the only creative, redemptive, transforming power in the universe.” Love moves us to sacrifice and care for others. It connects us to each other in a way that should promote harmony and peace.

But love without reason is blind. Love usually stops at the front door: we love our family but not our neighbors. Sometimes we do “love our neighbors.” But love rarely extends beyond borders. We may love those who share our ethnic, national or religious identity. But it is difficult to love humanity as a whole.

The best teachers of love want to extend it broadly, even maintaining that we ought to love our enemies. That is a radical idea, which may be impossible for mere mortals. But reason does tell us to extend love in a universal direction. A moment’s thought tells us that we are all members of the same species, despite our differences. Reason tells us that racial and ethnocentric biases are unjustified. It points toward an impartial and universal point of view.

We might supplement King’s enthusiasm for love, then, by claiming that reason is also a creative and transformative power in the universe. Reason’s virtue is its demand for objectivity and justification. Reason directs us away from nepotism, ethnic chauvinism, jingoistic patriotism, narcissistic pride and other malfunctions of love.

If we admit that love without reason is blind, we should also admit that reason without love is heartless. Warmongers often make cold-blooded arguments to support their violence. The same is true for murderers, torturers and the rest of violent humanity. Explanations and rationalizations have been employed in defense of all sorts of brutality.

Some arguments in defense of violence are better than others. But things go horribly wrong when callous arguments and cold rationalizations ignore the common beating heart of human experience, which is love. The tragedy of reason is its tendency to become cruelly inhuman and unloving.

A further difficulty is that violence is often justified in the name of love. Reason tells us that we ought to defend those we love against our enemies. But those enemies are also motivated by love and by arguments of their own. All human beings love their families, friends and ideals. Even the suicidal terrorist thinks that he’s justified. The deepest difficulty of violence is that it can be fueled by love and reason — the very things that should prevent violence.

The good news is that many of us are increasingly skeptical of traditional justifications of violence. Domestic violence, for example, would have gone unremarked upon in previous generations. Recent outrage about highly publicized cases of domestic violence is a sign of progress. There is similar outrage about war crimes and military aggression around the world. A growing number of us believe that violence is an irrational remnant of the youth of humanity.

To make further progress we have to link the objectivity and impartiality of reason with the passionate motivation and empathic connection of love. We need universal and reasonable love; and we need benevolent and compassionate reason. We need to love better and think more carefully.

Violence — like hatred, stupidity and ignorance — is easy. Thinking and loving are harder. It takes persistence and patience to love, to think and to build peace. Humanity has slowly worked its way toward a global society, through millennia of horrors. We are making slow progress. But piles of corpses and oceans of tears litter the way. The hard work of the next 30 years — and the next millennium — is to make ourselves more loving, more reasonable and more peaceful.

Read more here: http://www.fresnobee.com/2014/09/19/4133666/theres-still-a-long-road-ahead.html#storylink=cpy


Murder, Resentment, Revenge, Respect, and Recognition

Love, respect cannot be taken by force

Fresno Bee, May 30, 2014

Another awful story of mass violence comes to us from Santa Barbara — another story of promising young lives destroyed by a nihilistic young shooter. The shooter left a manifesto, reprinted in the Los Angeles Times, that contains an example of the typically horrifying moral reasoning used by those who justify violence.

The murderer resented those who excluded and rejected him. He wanted to prove his superiority over those who failed to love and respect him. He equated violence and cruelty with god-like power. He felt he was giving his “enemies” what they deserved. Guns and mental illness are obviously involved. But the flawed moral argument that led to his dreadful and nihilistic conclusion is also to blame.

Physical dominance through violence cannot create love, admiration or respect (or god-like power). Bullies, terrorists and murderers don’t understand this. They resort to violence in an apparent effort to get what they want. But they also seem to know that the tool they employ is incapable of providing them with what they want. So they end up destroying the very thing they desire.

Murder and resentment are nothing new. Homer’s “Iliad” chronicles Achilles’ murderous rampage. Achilles kills everyone he encounters, without mercy, even desecrating his enemy’s corpse. The Bible begins with the envious Cain killing his brother Abel. The terrain of resentment and revenge has been explored in various ways by Dostoevsky, Nietzsche and Shakespeare.

The Star Wars film series provides a contemporary example: Anakin Skywalker’s transformation into Darth Vader is fueled by resentful rage. The Santa Barbara manifesto fits this mold. A young man experiences rejection — and turns his rage against the entire world.

Literature, religion and popular culture remind us that villainous and vengeful pride leads only to the graveyard. But murderous young men seem not to care about this, willing their own deaths along with others — an absolutely nihilistic endpoint along the continuum of social instinct.

The experience of resentment and the desire for revenge afflicts us all from time to time. Who hasn’t felt insulted, excluded or envious? Who hasn’t been tempted to tell someone off or push back against an indifferent world?

When resentment rises, however, most of us are able to control it and prevent it from boiling over as vengeful rage. We learn that anger and revenge simply do not work to get us what we want. Most of us figure out how to soothe wounded pride with positive action. Instead of returning hurt for hurt, we learn that hard work, a sense of gratitude, the spirit of forgiveness, kindness, mercy, humor and love help to heal our wounds and create a better life.

Social philosophers describe the social world in terms of a struggle for recognition. We desire recognition by others. We feel resentment when we believe that we have not received the respect we deserve. Resentment is more than mere anger. It contains a moral judgment and develops when we believe that others should treat us better.

The agony of wounded pride is often deeper and longer-lasting than the pain of physical wounds. Resentment festers and broods, incubating plots for revenge. Revenge aims to pay people back for not giving us what we deserve, to take from them what they owe us.

But that is where resentment and revenge unravel. Violence takes what is not given, attempting to force others to give respect or love. But this destroys the very thing that is sought. Love, respect and recognition cannot be taken by force — we only receive them as gifts from others. Violence annihilates the conditions under which these social gifts can be given.

The struggle for recognition ought to properly lead to mutual recognition and reciprocal respect. This means that to be respected you have to work hard to earn it. To get love, you have to give it. And violence cannot get you what you want.

One moral of contemporary stories of mass murder is found in the resilience and compassion of the survivors. In the long run, positive social instincts such as empathy and care are much more powerful than the dark resentments that fester in the deranged minds of angry young men. Let’s hope that somehow someone will find a way cure these angry young men, so that these horror stories no longer keep happening in real life.

Read more here: http://www.fresnobee.com/2014/05/30/3952685/ethics-love-respect-are-given.html#storylink=cpy


Moral Brain-Hacking and Moral Education

Science not enough, ideas and thought needed

Fresno Bee, May 16, 2014

Perhaps the solution to crime and other social problems is to fix people’s brains or dose them with love drugs. Moral brain-hacking might be a cheap and effective way to produce moral people.

Moral behavior appears to depend upon chemicals such as serotonin, dopamine and oxytocin acting in our brains. Paul Zac argues in his book, “The Moral Molecule,” that oxytocin levels are correlated with empathy, trust and love. A squirt of oxytocin can make people kinder and more trusting.

Brain structure also matters. Magnetic resonance imaging suggests that a sense of justice is located in the part of the brain associated with higher-level cognition. Antisocial behavior is linked to brain defects.

Locating moral behavior in the brain — and not as the free choice of an immaterial soul — may require us to rethink traditional ideas about guilt and responsibility, punishment and reward, praise and blame. If we follow the neuroscience, it might make sense to “punish” people by requiring them to take drugs or have brain surgery. Locking criminals in prisons with other people who have similarly defective neurochemistry may eventually seem, well, medieval.

Spiritually inclined people may be dismayed by this materialistic focus. Brain-based discussions ignore the soul and the moral conscience. Neuroscience dusts the angels and demons off of our shoulders, focusing our attention on the space between our ears.

Those who think that consciousness is distinct from the brain have to explain how Prozac, Ritalin, marijuana, and St. John’s wort are able to change experience, mood and focus. The attitude adjustment provided by a glass of wine or a cup of coffee can make you wonder whether there is anything more to the mind than the brain and its chemistry.

Some may feel that this materialistic focus misses the really big picture of why morality matters. If moral experience is reduced to brain science, traditional metaphysical notions of good and evil may be lost. A brain-based view of personality rules out punishment and reward in the afterlife. The move from the soul to the brain involves a radical reassessment of the meaning of morality and of life itself.

The focus on brains does, however, overlook the importance of ideas and education. Even if we admit that experience is based in the hardware of the brain, we still need the software of consciousness — ideas and theories — that allows us to interpret our experience. A dose of oxytocin may be able to stimulate empathy. But empathetic emotional responses are devoid of content.

Ideas and ethical theories tell us how to act on our emotional responses to the world. Does caring for a loved one mean I should pull the plug and let them die — or keep them on life support? Does empathy for murder victims mean that criminals should be executed — or should empathy extend to criminals?

To answer those kinds of questions we need ideas. Pills, potions and powders can only take us so far. The brain’s capacities and responses are channeled by the stuff of thought: ideas about right and wrong, theories of the good life, models and heroes, and the whole range of issues that arise in the context of moral education.

Ideas cannot simply be reduced to chemical signals in the brain. Does that mean that ideas float freely in a world apart from physical reality. There is a deep mystery here. What is an idea like “good” or “evil” made of? Where do ideas dwell? And how do we know them? Those kinds of questions can really blow your mind (or brain or soul?).

Neurochemical enhancement can’t entirely replace moral education as traditionally understood. Religion, philosophy and literature fill the brain with ideas that guide, bewilder and inspire. Neuro-ethical hacking may make moral education easier. But the neurotransmitters cannot tell us whether brain hacking is a good idea. For that we need moral argument and critical thinking.

Neuroscientific enthusiasm may lead us to miss the moral forest as we gaze in fascination at the neurological trees. Some of us could benefit from a chemically induced compassion boost. But a compassionate brain without moral ideas is empty. A moral person is both a brain and its ideas. And those ideas come from good old-fashioned moral education.

Read more here: http://www.fresnobee.com/2014/05/16/3930743/science-not-enough-ideas-and-thought.html#storylink=cpy