Click-click-click. The man came down the road with his clapper, warning others to shun him. His face was disfigured by the lumpy excrescences and open sores of leprosy, his smell was foetid. He was an outcast – yet the young gentleman who came by on horseback paused, dismounted, and kissed the leper. He had overcome his disgust at this most alarming of diseases and recognised the presence of Christ in that distorted face. It had been a moment of decision, and Francis would never be the same again.
Yes, the leper was disgusting, and with good reason. It seems that disgust has the office of warning us away from potential danger. We associate it with faeces, vomit, dead bodies, rotting meat, evident signs of communicable disease and a whole range of connected behaviour. Francis was prepared to stifle this deep protective instinct as a sign of his radical choice.
We can speculate further. It has been suggested that disgust could be the source of our moral instinct. After all, we build much of our morality on the basis of what aids or what damages human flourishing. And St Paul’s reference to our recognition of the law in our hearts could very well be an account of such a deep instinct. In fact, our common usage of the word disgusting can include “arousing aversion or indignation”, if the OED is to be believed. So we extend the concept to cover behaviour so perverse that physical disgust merges with moral disgust. So it might refer, say, to the defacing of a war memorial or the corrupt behaviour of MPs.
It is interesting to exchange views on situations which we feel are best described as disgusting. But it may be that the application of the word depends as much on the nature of the describer as on the activity described. We know, for instance, that people of a conservative temperament are more prone to disgust than their liberal fellows. Women are more easily disgusted than men. And it has been shown that people, when asked to make moral judgments in an atmosphere of foul body smells, tend to be more condemnatory in their judgments. This suggests that emotions play at least as much a part as reason in the formation of moral attitudes.
And we note that disgust can lessen with familiarity. A mortuary attendant becomes less likely to be uncomfortable with dead bodies and cleaners of public lavatories can become desensitised to the fouler aspects of their work. If we are old, incontinent and in need of intimate care we may hope that our helper has neutralised the disgust which they might otherwise feel. If this occurs inside the close family it may be found that love is the best antidote – even if we cannot reach the extent of love displayed by Francis.
I do not believe that a sense of disgust explains away our sense of morality. My grasp of right and wrong depends on something much deeper, much less contingent and more permanent. But the two are undoubtedly related. That is, we have inherited a range of warning signals from our genetic past, since those who heeded the warnings survived to be our forebears. At some time or another these warnings have helped the human race to flourish.
It is important to evaluate such instincts or reactions which come from our primitive pasts. Some remain appropriate, others can lead us astray. So, fear of spiders, cats and crowds may be of less use to us now than heretofore. But fear of heights or tight places may well give needed warnings – if they do not become disabling. And so do instincts like reaction to sudden, unfamiliar noise or the temptation of the herd instinct.
The herd instinct reminds me of the 1980s, when it became received wisdom for financial houses to buy estate agency chains. The most elementary analysis (price-earnings ratios) demonstrated the folly of this, yet many were bought at a high price – and had to be sold back eventually to their original owners for a much lower price. Hundreds of millions of pounds went down the drain. Even large commercial organisations, it seems, can make foolish decisions when the herd gives the lead. And I am not speaking here with hindsight. I was there.
Another primitive instinct is the response to first impressions. They influence us disproportionately and even encourage us to disregard contrary evidence. This was useful when the first impression was possibly a prowling beast, but less so in more settled times. Those who claim that they always successfully rely on first impressions are simply guilty of selective memory.
The ability to ignore counter evidence is so common that it even has its own name: bias blind spot. Psychologists tell us that we find bias easy to detect in others but difficult to detect in ourselves. I have little consolation to offer here – it seems that high cognitive ability, good thinking patterns and a knowledge of bias blind spot is no protection against this inclination, and may even contribute to it.
In practice, many of our moral attitudes are formed by such deeply laid primitive instincts. We do use our sense of disgust to guide us – often uncritically, just as we do our elementary fears, and inherited patterns of behaviour. The answer is not to eradicate these instincts but to be so aware of their influence on us that we can discriminate. Have you kissed any lepers recently? Perhaps it takes a higher layer of discrimination, and perhaps a blind spot or two to do that. We call it sanctity.