Moral Disgust: A Theory of Relativity

With "the big game" a few days away, here is a glimpse into how football reveals some of the secrets of our moral universe and why we laud or are disgusted by various behaviors and people.

Joseph Paterno died on January 22. During his 46-season career, "Joe Pa" achieved more wins than any other coach in major college football history, and nearly single handedly established the life blood and livelihood of Penn State and its borough, State College. But a shadow was cast on his legacy when a child sex abuse scandal erupted in November 2011, which revealed that he had knowledge of pedophilia being perpetrated on young boys by his former assistant Jerry Sandusky and did not act on this information to the extent that he could have. Against an onslaught of protest from his supporters, Paterno was fired by Penn State last November. University officials explained that although Paterno met his legal obligations he did not meet his moral obligations to report the incident to the police, which presumably would have averted further abuse perpetrated by Sandusky. Nevertheless, his devotees continued to rally behind him and Paterno remained idolized through his death. At the candlelight vigil held for him, fans remembered him in tones that were near religious; one student explained that a surprising patch of white in the sky was a sign from Paterno that he was watching them. His moral lapse was also absolved by former Penn State and now Oakland Raiders player, Stefan Wisniewski, who told the crowd that it's clear that Paterno was "only a human after all." However, many outsiders do not share the local view, and Paterno has instead been accused of being as much as an accomplice after the fact to pedophilia and his behavior vilified as morally disgusting.

Saint or criminal? Our relationship to the object or action of moral turpitude mediates our responses. When President Clinton was discovered to be having "sexual relations" with his intern, his Republican detractors went wild and he was even temporarily impeached as a result. By contrast, Democrats defended his actions. The video of the marines urinating on the bloodied bodies of dead Taliban insurgents which surfaced in early January ignited a deluge of "disgust" from the world at large. But the "disgust" was most vehemently expressed by those most contemptuous of the U.S. military -- Afghanistan officials -- and was by contrast even empathized with by some Americans, such as former Army lieutenant colonel, Rep. Allen West (R-FL), who responded to criticizers by saying "shut your mouth -- war is hell." In other words, if the perpetrator or offense is one of your own or you understand it then you can excuse, defend, ignore or even laud the behavior. But if it goes against your worldview or cultural values then the actions become reprehensible and disgusting.

Disgust, especially moral disgust, is cultural, malleable and fickle, not hardwired. Disgust is determined by the meaning we apply to the trigger of our aversion and is not an absolute value of the trigger itself, and this extends from meat to morals. Paul Rozin (the father of the psychological study of disgust) and his colleagues showed that moral vegetarians -- people who become vegetarians because they are against animal cruelty or for ecological reasons -- not only then find steak tartar disgusting, they think that people who eat meat are more aggressive and animal-like than their fellow leaf-eaters. By contrast, people who become vegetarians for health reasons are not disgusted by the animal protein they used to enjoy nor do they think that those who consume it are moral luddites compared to themselves. That is, our relation and general attitudes towards the action in question determines our disgust and our moral stance. If you are a football fan at Penn State, Paterno is a saint. If you are outsider, especially if you have personal familiarity with child abuse, Paterno is a monster.

The reason we are compelled to downplay, ignore, or conversely vilify, certain behaviors is due to a psychological state called "cognitive dissonance." Cognitive dissonance is the discomfort that arises when you have to face conflicting information about your beliefs and values, and since we are motivated to want to feel internally integrated something has to give, and so we alter the meaning of one half of the equation to meet with consistency. Suppose I revere Joe Paterno. I then receive information regarding his behaviors that conflicts with his saintliness. Either I must no longer idolize him, or I focus on "all the good he has done" and forgive him "for being human." This is the position that the majority of the population of Penn State took, while many on the "outside" in order to maintain their view of Paterno as morally reprehensible, discounted any good that he did (which is also easier since they are not directly affected by it one way or another) and instead dwelled on the corruption and irresponsibility of his inaction.

We also condemn and consider morally disgusting the lack of disgust others may have for behaviors we think should be disgusting. Sharia law in Iran states that the punishment for adultery is execution by stoning We think that such behavior is morally disgusting and barbaric, but those who support it are in fact morally correct in the strictest terms because they are supporting "the law." We should remember too that it was not long ago in our own history that the Sunday hanging was the major social-entertainment spectacle of the week.

There are no acts, including pedophilia, stoning, or hangings that are disgusting to all people, nor are they universally morally unacceptable. Rather it is the whims of our culture, our politics and our relation to the acts or those perpetrating them that dictate our moral standards and our moral stance towards them. The next time we view someone or their behavior as morally repugnant, we may want to try to take a step into their football shoe so as to better understand our position relative to the relativity of the moral universe.

Rachel Herz is the author of the new book That's Disgusting: Unraveling the Mysteries of Repulsion, and teaches at Brown University.