The young man was having sex with his dog. In fact, he’d lost his virginity to it. Their relationship was still very good; the dog didn’t seem to mind at all. But the man’s conscience was eating at him. Was he acting immorally?
In search of sage counsel, he sent an email to David Pizarro, who teaches a class on moral psychology at Cornell University in New York. ‘I thought he was just pulling my leg,’ said Pizarro. He sent the man a link to an article about bestiality, and thought that would be the end of it. But the man responded with more questions. ‘I realised this kid was pretty serious.’
Although Pizarro is a leader in his field, he struggled to craft an answer. ‘What I ended up responding was: “I might not say this is a moral violation. But in our society you’re going to have to deal with all manner of people believing that your behaviour is odd, because it is odd. It’s not something anybody likes to hear about.” And I said: “Would you want your daughter to date someone who has been having sex with their dog? And the answer is no. And this is critical: you don’t have animals writing essays about how they’ve been mistreated because of their love of human beings. I would get help for this.”’
In essence, Pizarro was saying that the man’s behaviour was weird, concerning and distressing, but he wasn’t willing to condemn it. If that doesn’t sit well with you, you’re probably sickened by the very image of someone having sex with a dog. But was the man acting immorally? At least by the man’s own account, the dog wasn’t being harmed.
If you’re struggling to put your finger on why exactly the man’s behaviour seems wrong, psychologists have a term for your confused state of mind. You’re morally dumbfounded.
A ballooning body of research by Pizarro and others shows that moral judgments are not always the product of careful deliberation. Sometimes we feel an action is wrong even if we can’t point to an injured party. We make snap decisions and then – in the words of Jonathan Haidt, a social psychologist at New York University – ‘construct post-hoc justifications for those feelings’. This intuition, converging lines of research reveal, is informed by disgust, an emotion that most scientists believe evolved to keep us safe from parasites. Marked by cries of ‘Yuck!’ and ‘Ew!’, disgust makes us recoil in horror from faeces, bed bugs, leeches and anything else that might sicken us. Yet sometime deep in our past the same feeling that makes us cringe at touching a dead animal or gag at a rancid odour became embroiled in our most deeply held convictions – from ethics and religious values to political views.
Disgust’s key role in our moral intuitions is echoed in language: dirty deeds; slimy behaviour; a rotten scoundrel. Conversely, cleanliness is next to godliness. We seek spiritual purity. Corruption can contaminate us, so we shun the evil.