Disgust and Philosophy of Mind

What is disgust? If happiness tells us that things are good, and surprise that they are unexpected, etc. – what does disgust ‘tell us’?

An interesting thing about disgust is that the primary answer to the question ‘what is disgusting?’ must be ‘we are’. That is, it seems to be a basic fact about disgust that people, those very entities which can feel disgust, are also a source of disgust.

I say this not simply because many of the things that our bodies produce (saliva, sweat, urine, mucus, vomit, etc.) are in fact disgusting, but that it seems that the very fact of being from a person’s body makes things disgusting.

For instance, if I’m sitting on a bus and I notice a smell which, in itself, is neutral, neither pleasant nor unpleasant, I will probably (everything here, of course, is in generalisations) be fairly ok with this if I believe the smell to come from some inorganic source, like the glue that my book is bound with. But if I believe it to come from the person sitting next to me, I’m liable to be disgusted, and to feel specifically as though I have ‘made contact’ with them in too close a way, come to know them too intimately, through this.

Similarly, among the most disgusting things are when those parts of the human body which are not usually visible become visible – when organs spill out of abdomens, when the inside of the rectum is exposed through anal stretching, when we peer up someone’s nose or see a limb amputated. And, speaking at least for myself, if I though that I was seeing only a plastic model, a fake, I would find these things much less disturbing. Part of what repulses us is precisely that we see another person in a way that we don’t want to.

Of course, it must be pretty hard to be something that you find disgusting.

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