Tuesday, October 21, 2008

The Odor of Evil

My nominee for best use of fart spray in 2008:

Simone Schnall and co-authors (including the always interesting Jonathan Haidt) set up a table on the Stanford campus, asking passing Stanford students to complete a questionnaire on the immorality or not of marrying one's first cousin, having consensual sex with a first cousin, driving rather than walking 1 1/2 miles to work, and releasing a documentary over the objections of immigrants who didn't realize they were being interviewed on film. All respondents completed the questionnaire while standing near a trashbucket. For one group, the bucket was clean and empty; for another it was lightly doused with fart spray so that a mild odor emanated from it; for a third group, the bucket was liberally sprayed and emitted a strong stench. Participants in the odiferous conditions rated all four actions morally worse than in the fart-absent condition.

In other research, Haidt has found that people hypnotically induced to experience disgust are also more inclined to reach negative moral judgments then when they're not experiencing hypnotically-induced disgust; Schnall et al. found that people were more morally condemnatory when completing questionnaires in a disgustingly dirty office than in a clean one, after vividly recalling a disgusting event than after not being instructed to do so, and after watching a disgusting movie scene as opposed to a neutral or sad scene. In the last three of these experiments, they found the difference in moral judgment only among people who, in a post-test, described themselves as being highly aware of bodily states such as hunger and bodily tension. (As an aside, I'm generally mistrustful of the accuracy of people's reports about their typical daily steam of conscious experience, and I wonder if responses on the post-test might be influenced by the strength of either their reaction to the previously presented moral scenarios or their reaction to the disgusting stimulus.)

Moral condemnation and visceral disgust may be more closely related, then, than you think -- or at least than most philosophers seem inclined to think. Whether this is a good thing or a bad thing is open to dispute. In these scenarios, it seems like a bad thing, since people are being swayed in their judgments by irrelevant factors. Whether it's generally a bad thing, I suppose, will depend on whether there's generally a good relationship between the things that evoke visceral disgust and those worth morally condemning. (Unusual sexual practices? Poor hygiene? Illness? Reflecting on these sorts of cases leads me to suspect that the connection between visceral and moral disgust is overall more misleading than helpful.)

There's a practical moral to all this, too: When you're trying to get people to judge you lightly for all the crap you've done, don't fart!


Anonymous said...

Oh no... How did I miss this? I am a current Stanford student and I would have been very interested in talking to the researchers. :-(

Since you also did undergrad here, I assume where they set up the table wasn't White Plaza....

Anibal Monasterio Astobiza said...

What is at stake here is wether emotions are moral in character (nature).

I read once in some Damasio´s paper that disgust as a negative emotion is evolutionary reinterpreted as a moral feeling because disgust exerts a senstation of indignation.

If emotions are moral in nature then there is evidence for moral universalism, isn´t?

Michael Drake said...

This lends to the French Guard's taunt a quasi-moral dimension I hadn't appreciated.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Anon 9:14 -- LOL! Does White Plaza *still* have that problem? With Stanford's billions they haven't found a way to fix that yet? Or maybe it's part of a plot to get people to condemn all the White Plaza speakers? ;)

Hi Anibal -- Yes, Schall et al. cite Damasio and endorse the view you describe. I myself find it plausible but not compelling. With the big picture connection between moral emotion and universalism, I agree completely. Of course that sort of "universalism" may be species-relative, rather than compulsory for all rational beings.

Michael: I guess he's partly emanating his own condemnation! And if Arthur's father smells like elderberries he may be so pleased with him he's blind to his vice.

Brandon said...

Whether it's generally a bad thing, I suppose, will depend on whether there's generally a good relationship between the things that evoke visceral disgust and those worth morally condemning.

Stated like this, it would only be true if there were a causal relation from disgust (or its causes) to moral condemnation; if, for instance, disgust merely increases the salience of things that we are inclined to condemn, or intensifies the forcefulness with which we condemn them, then I'm not sure evaluation of whether the link is good or bad is so simple.

kvond said...

I am certainly not surprised by the study at all. I take moral judgements to be fundamentally affectively ground in the experience of soundness of one's own states. The value judgements upon others (or one's environment) necessarily incorporate (at least that is what I believe) the intutional alarms that go off when one senses that "something is wrong". Heightened states of emergency one would suspect would produce more critical, sharp turned judgements, in an attempt (however misdirected) to seal off oneself from influence. Openness is often a luxury.


Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks for the comments, Brandon and kvond!

Brandon: I agree that it's complex in the way you say.

kvond: I'm not so sure about this. For example, Schnall et al. in one of their studies find that moral judgments are less severe when sadness is induced. So I think there may be a more specific relationship between disgust and moral repudiation than just "something is wrong".

Anonymous said...

Very interesting! And the last sentence made me laugh out loud.

This seems to suggest that our moral judgments are based partly on non-rational factors, doesn't it? Maybe that's not very surprising. But people who do normative ethics presumably think there's a coherent principle behind our moral judgments, and this study seems to show that at least part of whatever determines our moral judgment is not a conceptual principle but something felt and non-conceptual.

It reminds me of the case with disgusting insects that are harmless: the revulsion that they invoke leads us to think it's perfectly moral to kill them even when they're completely harmless.

Anibal Monasterio Astobiza said...

What isak5 said is very important because of the implications in terms of institutional violence.

Imagine that we start a war just for a moral cause that veil an hidden moral disgust toward other group, this could lead us to self-agrandizing and even moral inmunity to critic for the disastrous consequences (casualties, collateral harm...)

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

I agree, Isak and Anibal! (However, Isak, to be fair to ethicists, they'll normally draw a distinction between what our moral judgments *should* be based on and what they're *actually* based on in ordinary folks.)

kvond said...

eric: "kvond: I'm not so sure about this. For example, Schnall et al. in one of their studies find that moral judgments are less severe when sadness is induced.

kvond: This is because the criticism that is evoked in "sadness" is a self-criticism. Part of what is wrong in "something is wrong" can always be "something is wrong with me" (my perceptions, my judgments, my actions, etc). When "something is wrong" clearly is read as "something is wrong with the world (and not me)" as is the case with a detectable odor one does not associate with oneself, I would suspect harsh moral judgments.

It would be interesting to play the same moral test out after the subject had been surrupticiously sprayed with a odor they suspect comes from themselves. This would be the equivalent of the inducement of sadness.


Eric Schwitzgebel said...

That's an interesting thought for a variation, kvond! I bet you would get different results.

I still doubt that you're right about sadness. In the Schnall et al. experiment the sadness-inducing film clip (from The Champ) was one where a boy watches his father die. I don't know the film, but Schnall et al. would have chosen badly if it's a scene in which the boy was causally responsible (which would conflate sadness and guilt).

I can easily imagine sadness (or at least sadness of a certain stripe) inducing a kind of passivity and desire for everyone (including oneself) to be gentle and non-blaming -- almost the opposite of anger.

kvond said...


I can see what you say about sadness to be true.

But there is a sense as well in which sadness is linked to anger. Anger often rises out of sadness, or can work to cover it up. Viewing "The Champ" is one kind of sadness, the another would being sad that your father was dead, in fact murdered.