Being Human pt. I

12 September 2008

The book of Leviticus makes a lot more sense when you think of ancient lawgivers first sorting everything into two categories: “disgusts me” (gay male sex, menstruation, pigs, swarming insects) and “disgusts me less” (gay female sex, urination, cows, grasshoppers).

For my dissertation research, I made up stories about people who did things that were disgusting or disrespectful yet perfectly harmless. For example, what do you think about a woman who can’t find any rags in her house so she cuts up an old American flag and uses the pieces to clean her toilet, in private? Or how about a family whose dog is killed by a car, so they dismember the body and cook it for dinner? I read these stories to 180 young adults and 180 eleven-year-old children, half from higher social classes and half from lower, in the USA and in Brazil. I found that most of the people I interviewed said that the actions in these stories were morally wrong, even when nobody was harmed. Only one group—college students at Penn—consistently exemplified Turiel’s definition of morality and overrode their own feelings of disgust to say that harmless acts were not wrong. (A few even praised the efficiency of recycling the flag and the dog).


My moral opinion on homosexuality (by way of example) only began to take a reasonable shape when people I respected talked as if homosexuality didn’t necessarily disgust them, whether or not they considered it immoral. That forced me to acknowledge that I was approaching the issue largely as an exercise in justifying my gut feelings.

Of course, now having [mostly] learnt that lesson, I find myself very impatient with people who argue entirely from emotion. ‘It just seems wrong’ or ‘it’s disgusting’ are, I think, almost entirely irrelevant in questions of morality.

Which leads me back to a recurring theme in my thinking: being a good and moral human is an exercise in resisting and suppressing millenia of biological conditioning. The more complex our societies become, the less useful our base emotions are, except perhaps as occasional measures and symptoms. The question is this: if human society and human biology are this incompatible with each other, which should change?