Ethics of Disgust

Today is the start of a new week of online ethics classes, and this week we’re talking about the ethics of disgust. I wrote the class material this morning, and have just run the first three lessons tonight, and it went really well. This is a really interesting subject to explore from an ethics viewpoint. Disgust is an instinctive reaction we feel at certain things and situations, but it translates into actions that can affect people in illogical ways.

I go into the reasons why we feel disgust – it being an evolutionary instinct to protect us from potentially dangerous things like disease. Most of the things we feel disgust towards tend to be things with a high risk of carrying pathogens. The problem is when that instinct is transferred by association to things that don’t pose such risks, and when that influences how we behave.

I have examples including why people are advised to dress and groom well for a court appearance. Research shows that juries and judges are less sympathetic to more scruffy appearing people – and lawyers know this. There’s also differences in the way people react to other people in need of help – they’re more likely to help clean looking people than dirty looking ones. And then there’s disgust in the area of medical research – a lot of things done to further medical knowledge and save lives are things that people consider disgusting, both in modern times and centuries ago. I tell the story of how doctors used to have people go and dig up freshly buried bodies so they could dissect them to learn about how the body works – and how the dissection of bodies was deemed so disgusting by society at large that they made it illegal, thus forcing the doctors to these extreme measures.

It felt like the kids really enjoyed this lesson, and there was a lot of good discussion about the topic as we went through the examples.

In other news, it was very rainy again today. Apparently it’s going to rain until Friday, then be sunny on the weekend, and then the rain will return from Monday again! The Australian Bureau of Meteorology released a long-term forecast for the summer, indicating we’re likely to be in for a cooler, wetter summer this year, with above average rainfall and likely a lot of storms, due to ongoing marginal La NiƱa conditions. When the pendulum finally swings and we got a hotter, dryer summer it’s going to be one to watch.

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