Divinity & Disgust

The question of where morality comes from remains a bee in the bonnet of both religionists and philosophers. Or perhaps it only seems so because we’ve lately been reading a few books on the subject. What emerges from this reading is nagging feeling that talking about the origins of morality is a way of talking about God now that talk about God has been so thoroughly hashed and rehashed, dissected and inspected, that the word doesn’t mean what it used to — for better or worse, though mostly for better.

“God” rarely rings precisely the same way to any two people and so it’s usefulness as a marker of ultimate concerns may have in some ways come to an end. “Morality,” on the other hand, retains at least the illusion of agreement. We may differ on the particulars, but most would concur that the word has something to do with living a good life without doing much harm to others in the process.

So the question of moral origins in a good one, even if the idea of moral origins seems to deny the obvious: that morality is a process, not a discovery. All of which makes this New York Times report on evolution and ethics so interesting. Not only does it explore the excellently named concept of “moral dumbfounding,” it offers up a quote from University of Virginia psychologist Jonathan Haidt which could serve as yet another of KtB’s many slogans: “I first found divinity in disgust.”

Haidt wrote that line about the ways in which the primitive experience of disgust might have led to concepts of purity, which in turn inspired thoughts of ultimate purity, the divine. Of course, divinity has been known to breed disgust as well. For example: