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Yuck!: The Nature and Moral Significance of Disgust

Daniel Kelly
Copyright Date: 2011
Published by: MIT Press,
Pages: 208
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  • Book Info
    Book Description:

    People can be disgusted by the concrete and by the abstract -- by an object they find physically repellent or by an ideology or value system they find morally abhorrent. Different things will disgust different people, depending on individual sensibilities or cultural backgrounds. In Yuck!, Daniel Kelly investigates the character and evolution of disgust, with an emphasis on understanding the role this emotion has come to play in our social and moral lives. Disgust has recently been riding a swell of scholarly attention, especially from those in the cognitive sciences and those in the humanities in the midst of the "affective turn." Kelly proposes a cognitive model that can accommodate what we now know about disgust. He offers a new account of the evolution of disgust that builds on the model and argues that expressions of disgust are part of a sophisticated but largely automatic signaling system that humans use to transmit information about what to avoid in the local environment. He shows that many of the puzzling features of moral repugnance tinged with disgust are by-products of the imperfect fit between a cognitive system that evolved to protect against poisons and parasites and the social and moral issues on which it has been brought to bear. Kelly's account of this emotion provides a powerful argument against invoking disgust in the service of moral justification.

    eISBN: 978-0-262-29537-6
    Subjects: Philosophy, Psychology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. Introduction
    (pp. 1-10)

    Pick a random person off the street and ask him to name five disgusting things off the top of his head, and you are likely to get an earful about filth, disease, death, bugs, and perhaps the mention of some sort of exotic food he finds particularly unpleasant, like pickled snake or boiled sea cucumber. These are the types of things mention of disgust most immediately brings to mind, and they are concrete and manifestly physical. The experience of the emotion, as opposed to the things that commonly induce it, is fairly primal itself: the visceral sense of revulsion, the...

  5. 1 Toward a Functional Theory of Disgust
    (pp. 11-42)

    One interesting fact about disgust is that it is a piece of human psychology that does not sit easily on either side of the traditional nature–nurture divide. On the one hand, the capacity to be disgusted, together with a small set of things that appear to be universally and innately disgusting, is a part of the species’ typical psychological endowment. These are a part of human nature; one does not have to learnhowto be disgusted, and one does not have to be taught to be disgustedbycertain things, either—like the pungent smell of rotting garbage...

  6. 2 Poisons and Parasites: The Entanglement Thesis and the Evolution of Disgust
    (pp. 43-60)

    A few comparative questions will help frame the discussion in this chapter. First: is the emotion of disgust found only in human beings? This question is interesting not only for the insight an answer might shed on human nature but also because different theorists working on the emotions have given it different answers. On the one hand, a group of prominent researchers who have focused on disgust in particular answer the question in the affirmative. In the view they recommend, disgust is “a very old (though uniquely human) rejection system” (Haidt et al. 1997), which “is absent in nonhuman primates,...

  7. 3 Disgustʹs Sentimental Signaling System: Expression, Recognition, and the Transmission of Cultural Information
    (pp. 61-100)

    Anyone who has played Texas hold ’em or seven-card draw can tell you how hard it is to keep a good poker face. It is extremely difficult to keep from broadcasting to the entire table your opinion of a hand, whether you are elated that you made a full house, disappointed that you missed a high flush by a single card, disgusted that you think your opponent pulled an inside straight, or just ambivalent about your pair of kings. From the inside, it can seem that such emotions are dying to break free and show themselves. The intensity with which...

  8. 4 Disgust and Moral Psychology: Tribal Instincts and the Co-opt Thesis
    (pp. 101-136)

    What is the relationship between disgust and morality? Although both this chapter and the next attempt to say something about this relationship, I do not pretend to provide an exhaustive answer. Indeed, the question can feel not just difficult but intractable largely because, as stated, it is ambiguous and so can be interpreted in a number of ways. One might be interested, for example, in whether and how disgust can illuminate issues in moral theory that traditionally fall within the domain of metaethics (Mackie 1977; McDowell 1985, 1987; Blackburn 1994; D’Arms and Jacobson 2000, 2005; Knapp 2003; Nichols 2004; Gert...

  9. 5 Disgust and Normative Ethics: The Irrelevance of Repugnance and Dangers of Moralization
    (pp. 137-152)

    Like the last chapter, this one examines the relationship between disgust and morality, but it focuses on a different facet. Here I begin by considering two diametrically opposed views on the moral significance of what is sometimes called the “yuck factor.” Say your response to an activity or social practice is simply: “yuck”; you find it simply and unequivocally disgusting. What follows? Is that a good enough reason to think the practice is morally wrong or problematic?

    I use the debate over the correct answer to this question to motivate its main issues and core points of contention. Proponents of...

  10. Notes
    (pp. 153-164)
  11. References
    (pp. 165-188)
  12. Index
    (pp. 189-194)