More on the instinctive nature of morality

The origins of morality lie in the disgust that makes us avoid rotting food and other health hazards, according to research that explains why injustice is said to leave a bad taste in the mouth. Scientists have discovered that the feeling of being cheated evokes the same revulsion response as foul-tasting food and drink. The involuntary emotional reaction that keeps us away from sources of infection also prompts us to uphold moral standards and to shun those who do not.

The findings, from a team of psychologists in Canada, suggest that disgust was important to the evolution of morality, and that our sense of what is ethical is based not only on reasoning but powerful gut reactions as well. "Morality is often pointed to as the pinnacle of human evolution and development," said Hanah Chapman, of the University of Toronto. "However, disgust is an ancient, rather primitive emotion which played a key evolutionary role in survival. Our research shows the involvement of disgust in morality, suggesting that moral judgment may depend as much on simple emotional processes as complex thought."

Her colleague Adam Anderson said: "These results shed new light on the origins of morality, suggesting that not only do complex thoughts guide our moral compass, but also more primitive instincts related to avoiding potential toxins. Surprisingly, our sophisticated moral sense of what is right and wrong may develop from a newborn's innate preference for what tastes good and bad."

Disgust is a universal emotion that is thought to have evolved to promote survival. The things that we find revolting, such as rotting food, faeces, corpses and open wounds, are potent sources of germs, and the sense of abhorrence that they invoke helps to ensure that we stay away from them. The emotion is caused by similar triggers across different human societies, pointing to deep evolutionary roots. There is also a universal facial expression attached to disgust, involving a curl of the lip, a wrinkled nose and lowered eyebrows, which is recognised around the world. The study shows that the same expression is activated when people are treated unfairly, indicating that both physical and moral disgust have the same root.

The results, published in the journal Science, suggest that the powerful emotion of disgust was co-opted to drive morality, as systems of ethical standards became advantageous to human societies. A disgust response is a powerful incentive to avoid behaviour that might induce it and people who make you feel revulsion. This would have promoted fair and co-operative behaviour by making people disgusted with themselves when they transgress and by imposing a social cost on those who break moral rules. "Unfair offers may be received like a plate of spoilt food," the researchers wrote. "This turning away or rejection of unfair actions may also extend to later avoidance of transgressors."

In the study, the scientists measured movement of the facial muscles in subjects playing a game in which they were asked to accept or reject when offered shares of a sum of money. Low offers elicited an expression of disgust similar to that caused by a bad taste. The results suggest that both types of disgust stem from the same neural systems and evolutionary roots, and that moral disgust grew out of the original health-related emotion.


Posted by John Ray. For a daily critique of Leftist activities, see DISSECTING LEFTISM. For a daily survey of Australian politics, see AUSTRALIAN POLITICS Also, don't forget your daily roundup of pro-environment but anti-Greenie news and commentary at GREENIE WATCH . Email me (John Ray) here

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