Moral intuition is a powerful, and highly variable, thing. We often decide right or wrong first and look for reasons to justify our position afterwards. A recent psychology experiment, though, suggests that at least some of our "moral intuition" is based on feeling physically queasy.
"There are, after all, practices that many of us deem morally wrong and disgusting, including sex with a close relative, but also touching a dead body, or eating a recently deceased pet. And the more disgusting we find these behaviours, the more wrong they seem.... This association begs the question: might our moral judgments come from the sickened way that morally improper behaviours make us feel? ... Until recently, no research study had been able to figure out if the disgust felt upon encountering a morally troubling situation is what makes us decide that the situation is wrong. In fact, no study had even determined whether that feeling is real – whether, when we say we are disgusted by some morally reprehensible event, we mean it literally: we feel nauseous. This gap in scientific knowledge led my former graduate student Conor Steckler to come up with a brilliant idea. As those prone to motion sickness might know, ginger root can reduce nausea. Steckler suggested we feed people ginger pills, then ask them to weigh in on morally questionable scenarios – behaviours such as peeing in a public pool, or buying a sex doll that looks like one’s receptionist. If people’s moral beliefs are wrapped up in their bodily sensations, then giving them a pill that reduces some of those sensations might reduce how wrong those behaviours seem. ...
"Those who ingested ginger decided that some of those violations, such as someone peeing in your swimming pool, were not so wrong after all. Blocking their nausea changed our participants’ moral beliefs. Importantly, these effects didn’t emerge for all the moral dilemmas we presented. Prior to conducting the research, we had categorised hypothetical moral situations as either highly severe or only moderately problematic, based on research assistants’ judgments of wrongness. Having sex with a sibling and eating one’s dead dog were considered highly severe, but touching the eyeball of a corpse, eating faeces that had been fully sanitised, and buying an inflatable sex doll that looks like one’s receptionist were seen as more moderate. In our studies, ginger had no effect on participants’ responses to highly severe infractions. ... In contrast, for the more ambiguous infractions – such as buying that sex doll or eating (totally clean!) faeces – people’s moral judgments were partly shaped by their disgust feelings. In such cases, where disgust is elicited but wrongness is uncertain, people seem to lean on their gut emotions to make moral judgments. If those feelings are inhibited, so that people can think about the possibility of eating clean faeces without wanting to throw up, the objectionable behaviours become less morally problematic. We also found that ginger had no effect on people’s beliefs about other kinds of moral violations: those that involve harm to others, such as drinking and driving, or those that involve fairness, such as failing to tip a server. The violations that were affected by ginger, in contrast, centred on maintaining the purity of one’s own body. ...
"[O]ur research shows that moral beliefs based on sanctity concerns represent a different category of morality than those based on harm and fairness. We were able to shift people’s sanctity beliefs simply by giving them ginger. A moral view that changes on the basis of how nauseous we feel is probably not one that we want to put a lot of stake in. Instead, many of us would prefer to hew to a set of moral standards that come from a coherent, rationally derived philosophy about enhancing justice and mitigating harms. ... Before deciding that something is wrong, we might ask ourselves, is it just that I’m disgusted by it? Or, when encountering what appears to be a moral dilemma, we could play it safe and reach for a ginger ale."
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