Things Rank and Gross in Nature: A Review and Synthesis of Moral Disgust

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Abstract

Much like unpalatable foods, filthy restrooms, and bloody wounds, moral transgressions are often described as “disgusting.” This linguistic similarity suggests that there is a link between moral disgust and more rudimentary forms of disgust associated with toxicity and disease. Critics have argued, however, that such references are purely metaphorical, or that moral disgust may be limited to transgressions that remind us of more basic disgust stimuli. Here we review the evidence that moral transgressions do genuinely evoke disgust, even when they do not reference physical disgust stimuli such as unusual sexual behaviors or the violation of purity norms. Moral transgressions presented verbally or visually and those presented as social transactions reliably elicit disgust, as assessed by implicit measures, explicit self-report, and facial behavior. Evoking physical disgust experimentally renders moral judgments more severe, and physical cleansing renders them more permissive or more stringent, depending on the object of the cleansing. Last, individual differences in the tendency to experience disgust toward physical stimuli are associated with variation in moral judgments and morally relevant sociopolitical attitudes. Taken together, these findings converge to support the conclusion that moral transgressions can in fact elicit disgust, suggesting that moral cognition may draw upon a primitive rejection response. We highlight a number of outstanding issues and conclude by describing 3 models of moral disgust, each of which aims to provide an account of the relationship between moral and physical disgust.

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