Homosexuality and Disgust

There’s an interesting piece in the most recent issue of the Duke Journal of Gender Law & Policy, by Prof. Richard E. Redding of Villanova University School of Law, about how “the psychology of disgust” plays a role in the opposition to same-sex marriage. This section particularly zeroes in on the topic.

Redding’s thesis is that moral opposition to homosexuality is really a subconscious mask for intuitive feelings of disgust or revulsion. Not everything society considers immoral is treated with revulsion. Killing, stealing, lying, and adultery are all considered immoral, but they don’t make people feel an intuitive sense of physiological disgust or fear of contamination the way homosexuality does.

Redding writes:

Disgust arises from the sense of bodily contamination… It evolved to prevent contact with biological vectors of disease transmission and to maintain the boundaries between our human and animal natures. “Disgust appears to function as a guardian of the body in all cultures, responding to elicitors that are biologically or culturally linked to disease transmission… In many cultures, disgust goes beyond such contaminant-related issues and supports a set of virtues and vices linked to bodily activities in general.”

Over time, disgust evolved into a moral emotion — we perceive conduct that disgusts us as being immoral conduct. … In addition to religious beliefs (which themselves may have evolved from the “moral emotion” of disgust), the “moral emotion” of disgust may explain why public sentiments about homosexuality are so strong, negative, and pervasive.

Morality grew out of everyday life. Human beings had to learn to survive in a dirty world filled with dangerous germs. Many early religious rites grew out of the concept of cleanliness; cleanliness is what separates us from the animals. Consequently, the notion of purity versus impurity looms large as a religious metaphor. Think of the ancient purification rituals required before entering temples. And Yom Kippur, the most important Jewish holiday, involves purifying oneself from sin.

Cleanliness is also a way to stratify society: the “clean” versus the “unclean.” Many traditional social systems, particularly in the East, had a class of people called “untouchables”; they were usually the people who worked in dirty occupations, such as those involving the butchering of animals or the handling and removal of feces. Fear of contagion led the “higher” people to protect themselves from these “lower” people through separation. The impure had to be cast out of society, lest they contaminate those who were pure. (See also: scapegoat.) Impurity was naturally contagious.

Over time, these ideas and fears about uncleanliness, contamination and contagion merged with concepts that had other origins, coalescing into religion and religious morality. Although they’re associated with religion, these particular concepts grew out of physical fears.

Since sexual behavior is a prime vector for “contaminating” oneself with another person’s bodily fluids — sweat, saliva, semen, vaginal fluids — it’s often associated with disgust. Throw in anal sex — and, today, the fear of AIDS — and gay men become a particularly strong object of disgust. (There’s also the male fear of being de-masculinized and the way homosexuality upsets traditional gender roles, which Redding doesn’t really discuss.)

What’s really fascinating is a study Redding cites in which subjects were hynotized to think of certain ordinary words with disgust, such as “take.” When the subjects then read sentences containing that word, they saw the otherwise neutral actions described therein as disgusting. When the sentences described transgressive actions, the subjects saw those actions as more morally wrong when the sentence contained the special word than when it didn’t.

Redding states that this and other experiments “make[] a very compelling case that many moral judgments, including those relating to sexuality, are not the product of a deliberate, rational thought process that involves weighing and evaluating competing arguments. Rather, such judgments are made intuitively, emotionally, rapidly, and largely outside of conscious awareness. These intuitive reactions, which arise from conditioned emotional responses to situations and stimuli, are provided with post-hoc rationalizations. Moral reasoning is ‘employed only to seek confirmation of preordained conclusions.’ ”

That last sentence to me is the kicker. Moral reasoning is often employed only to seek confirmation of preordained conclusions.

Redding includes two quotes toward the end of his piece that I think are great. From Dan Jones:

Disgust didn’t evolve to track things that we would normally consider morally important, unlike empathy, which is triggered by the real pain or suffering of others.

From Martha Nussbaum:

[T]he moral progress of society can be measured by the degree to with it separates disgust from danger and indignation, basing laws and social rules on substantive harm, rather than on the symbolic relationship an object bears to anxieties about animality and mortality.

Fascinating stuff.

(By the way, I found this article while looking through the most recent Lesbian/Gay Law Notes, compiled by Professor Art Leonard of New York Law School.)