Harm Mediates the Disgust-Immorality Link

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Abstract

Many acts are disgusting, but only some of these acts are immoral. Dyadic morality predicts that disgusting acts should be judged as immoral to the extent that they seem harmful. Consistent with this prediction, 3 studies reveal that perceived harm mediates the link between feelings of disgust and moral condemnation—even for ostensibly harmless “purity” violations. In many cases, accounting for perceived harm completely eliminates the link between disgust and moral condemnation. Analyses also reveal the predictive power of anger and typicality/weirdness in moral judgments of disgusting acts. The mediation of disgust by harm holds across diverse acts including gay marriage, sex acts, and religious blasphemy. Revealing the endogenous presence and moral relevance of harm within disgusting-but-ostensibly harmless acts argues against modular accounts of moral cognition such as moral foundations theory. Instead, these data support pluralistic conceptions of harm and constructionist accounts of morality and emotion. Implications for moral cognition and the concept of “purity” are discussed.

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