Physical disgust and moral condemnation

Jun 10, 2021 | Article

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Being judgemental causes harm, especially when it is made in disgust or fear, is based on hearsay or is made without the authority to judge. Here are some questions to consider when you find yourself in a judgemental mood.

It is of even more concern that judging others harms the person making a judgement more than the person they are judging.

A rule of thumb in psychology states that when you speak in the judgement of others, you are often speaking more of yourself. In other words, when you sit in unauthorised judgement on others, you are also judging yourself. This can lead to a dangerous diminution of your self-worth.

So recent research on how we make moral judgments by a team from the University of Cambridge’s Department of Psychology found that morality is shaped by emotions and intuitions. Concerns about health and safety are significant factors.

Prof Simone Schnall, leader of the research team, said: “These influences on judgments happen outside of our conscious awareness. If we feel that our wellbeing is threatened […], we are also likely to feel more threatened by other people’s wrongdoing.” Between March and May 2020, more than 900 study participants in the USA were presented with a series of scenarios and asked to rate them on a scale from “not at all wrong” to “extremely wrong”.

The study, published in the journal Evolutionary Psychology, focussed on a varied range of moral transgressions. This allowed researchers to measure participants’ responses across five fundamental moral principles: harm, fairness, in-group loyalty, deference to authority, and purity.

The findings contribute to a growing body of evidence of a link between physical disgust – an emotion designed to keep us from harm – and moral condemnation.

It’s all too easy to pass judgement. It can be no more than a slip of the tongue or even just one or two words.

Bearing in mind the damage you can do to yourself when you pass judgment, try asking yourself some questions beforehand. And if you can’t question yourself first, at least give these questions some consideration afterwards:

  • How does it / did it make me feel?
  • What motivated me to say what I did?
  • How much did fear, and specifically physical disgust, contribute to your moral condemnation?
  • Is there truth in what I say if I substitute ‘I’ for ‘you’?

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