Disgust and Morals: The Ginger Factor

J.L. Tracy, C.M. Steckler, and G. Heltzel, ‘The Physiological Basis of Psychological Disgust and Moral Judgments’, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 116 (2018), 15-32.

A brief interlude amid posts on the subjective experience of remembering (posts marked ‘SER‘).

Now, this is something. I have written before here, and in an essay with Emma Firestone, about a link between morality and disgust. Some experimental findings suggest that feeling disgusted makes us morally harsh, whereas feeling clean makes us morally lenient. There are sceptics, and even the proponents acknowledge that there are subtleties to be unravelled, but this arresting finding is hanging in there — and in this article, it’s taken to a new place altogether. So… ginger is an anti-emetic, it stops us vomiting. So… if we take ginger, then are we less disgusted by, say, unpleasant interactions with bodily fluids? Apparently yes. So… if we take ginger, then are we less morally harsh? Apparently yes (though only in relation to ‘the purity moral foundation’ — this doesn’t apply to every aspect of morality). And that’s the drift of Tracy et al. I’m generally very interested in the way that higher functions like moral judgment interact with basic physical responses, and I am specifically interested because in that essay Emma and I wondered about how patterns of gross physical metaphor in some of Shakespeare’s plays might relate to their complex and awkward moral textures. So I am just taking note here of an argument about our morals and our bodies that takes a bold, strange, striking step.

E-mail me at rtrl100[at]cam.ac.uk

1 thought on “Disgust and Morals: The Ginger Factor

  1. Emily Troscianko

    Thanks, Raphael, this is lovely to know about! It makes me wonder whether ginger might be helpful in recovery from anorexia: maybe it could have the neat double effect of defusing self-directed judgements about loss of purity that often accompany ‘excessive’ eating (sometimes in interaction with heightened, if highly selective, bodily awareness), and at the same time the handy side-effect of lessening the nausea of eating. Like you, I find these kinds of ‘high’/’low’ effect fascinating, and given the strength of metaphorical associations that accumulate in eating disorders, it’s interesting to speculate about their health relevance too.


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