Trevor Noah asked Sapolsky to explain his claim that the ideological differences between political progressives and political conservatives reflect deep biological differences in their psychological traits, so that "their brains are wired differently," and Noah wondered whether this led to the "frightening" conclusion that in politics people are no longer making decisions for themselves. Sapolsky responded by saying that this should not be surprising if we recognize that "we're biological organisms," and so, of course, our biological nature is going to influence our political beliefs.
Sapolsky then referred to what he called "one of my favorite studies in the whole book." If you put people in a room with a smelly garbage can, they become more socially conservative, in that they are more likely to decide that a social practice that is different from our own is not just different but morally wrong. In his book, he refers to this study on page 453 (n. 44). The title of the article he is citing is "Disgusting Smells Cause Decreased Liking of Gay Men" (Inbar et al. 2011).
Sapolsky went on to say that this is part of the research showing that social conservatives on average have a lower threshold for disgust, and the disgust reaction is seen in the activity in the part of the brain called the insula. The insula was originally evolved to react negatively to bad tasting food or bad smells, but then later in our evolution, this brain mechanism for gustatory or olfactory disgust was appropriated for moral disgust: rotten acts create a "bad taste in our mouth."
Sapolsky and Noah could then laugh at conservatives for being driven by irrational emotions of disgust, while implying that liberals or progressives are rational people who use their reason to control the emotions that are uncontrolled among conservatives.
Liberal bias has introduced two kinds of distortion here. The first is the silence about libertarianism as an alternative to liberalism and conservatism. Sapolsky is silent about the research by Haidt and his colleagues (Iyer et al., 2012) showing that libertarians have a lower threshold for disgust than do either conservatives or liberals, and that libertarians are far more cerebral in their moral judgments. I have pointed this out in the previous post.
One might try to defend Sapolsky here by saying that his 10-minute interview with Noah was too short to bring up all the complications in this research. But that defense won't work, because in his book (almost 800 pages long!), Sapolsky devotes only one sentence to libertarianism (446), and it's a curt, and untrue, dismissal of libertarianism as lacking any consistency.
The second kind of distortion is the false assumption that liberals are so purely rational that they do not show moral disgust or any other moral emotion. That this is false is evident to anyone who actually reads the article about the smelly garbage can experiment that Sapolsky cites.
Here's the abstract for the paper: "An induction of disgust can lead to more negative attitudes toward an entire social group. Participants who were exposed to a noxious ambient odor reported less warmth toward gay men. This effect of disgust was equally strong for political liberals and conservatives, and was specific to attitudes toward gay men--there was only a weak effect of disgust on people's warmth toward lesbians, and no consistent effect on attitudes toward African Americans, the elderly, or a range of political issues" (Inbar et al., 2011, 23).
So the effect of disgust toward gay men (relative to heterosexual men) was "equally strong for political liberals and conservatives"! Neither in his television interview nor in his book does Sapolsky mention this, because it would weaken his claim that liberals are not motivated by the moral disgust that motivates conservatives.
Now it is true that political liberals are more likely than political conservatives to say that one should not rely on feelings of disgust when making moral judgments (Graham, Haidt, and Nosek, 2009), and it is true that political liberals generally express a higher respect for homosexuals than do political conservatives. But what this experiment with the smelly garbage can suggests is that political liberals can be influenced by the subtle effects of disgust just as conservatives are. And keep in mind that libertarians are probably much less influenced by moral disgust towards homosexuals than are either liberals or conservatives.
If one agrees with those social psychologists who have argued that political orientation is deeply influenced by emotional intuitions rooted in evolutionary foundations--perhaps Haidt's six moral foundations--then one should expect that liberals are just as strongly motivated by their emotional intuitions as are conservatives or libertarians (Haidt 2012). Even if one agrees with those like Joshua Greene (2013) who argue that moral judgment shows a complex interaction of intuitive emotion and deliberate reasoning, one would expect that even liberals who claim to be guided by pure reason must be motivated by emotional dispositions. (My series of posts on Greene begin here.)
So, for example, consider the liberal opposition to genetically modified food (GM) in the United States. Surveys indicate that a majority of Americans are opposed to GM. And of those, most are so absolutely opposed that they say GM should be prohibited regardless of what the evidence might be as to risks and benefits. This is remarkable, especially since there is a scientific consensus that GM is no more risky than food that has not been genetically modified, and the benefits of GM are clear, particularly for the less well off in the developing world. Scott et al. (2016) have shown, from a survey of U.S. representative of the population, that those who are absolutely opposed to GM are more disgust sensitive in general and more disgusted by the consumption of GM than those who are not absolutist in their opposition to GM and those who are supporters. Social liberals and social conservatives are equally motivated by their moral disgust to oppose GM. Scott et al. (2016, 322) explain:
". . . In the case of GM, we believe that disgust-based moral intuitions are grounded in intuitions about contamination and perceived violations of 'naturalness.' The current data suggest that valuing naturalness is not the exclusive province of the political left or right. . . . We believe those on the left feel more connected to nature, whereas those on the right feel stewardship over the natural world because nature is part of God's creation. If so, liberals may value nature because it is intrinsically part of a moral circle and object to any harm to wild animals or habitats. Conservatives may value nature on theological grounds and object to scientists 'playing God' by disregarding the prescribed relationship between man and the natural world."If this is correct--that liberals and conservatives are equally motivated by moral disgust in their opposition to GM--then Martha Nussbaum (2004) is wrong in her claim that disgust is an "illiberal emotion."
Okay, some liberals might say, maybe in our opposition to GM we do allow our disgust reactions to overwhelm our reason, but on most issues our reason rules over our passions, unlike those poor social conservatives who allow their irrational emotions to control all of their moral and political positions. On the contrary, there is evidence that across a wide range of issues, liberals are motivated by moral emotions.
The most sacred value for liberals is caring for the victims of oppression and unfairness. Consequently, they think government should intervene in the economy to protect the poor and the weak from being oppressed by the rich and the powerful. This is motivated by moral disgust elicited by what they see as oppressive or unfair conduct. In experimental game theory, studies of how the emotions of disgust are stirred by unfair offers in the Ultimatum Game, and of how this disgust arises in parts of the brain that evolved originally to react against bad food and pathogens, indicate how liberal moral disgust can be understood as an evolved reaction against unfairness and injustice (Sanfey et al., 2003; Rozin et al., 2009; Chapman et al., 2009; Moretti and Pellegrino, 2010).
Petrescu and Parkinson (2014) have shown in an experiment that inducing people to feel disgust--by presenting them with pictures designed to induce disgust--causes them to adopt left-wing positions on economic issues. For example, those feeling disgust were more likely to strongly agree with the statement that "government should redistribute income from the better off to those who are less well off." So while conservatives are more likely to be disgusted by violations of physical and spiritual purity, liberals are more likely to be disgusted by violations of economic fairness and equality.
Another sacred value for liberals is what Haidt calls the "care/harm foundation." Human beings have an evolved disposition to care for children and protect them from harm, and this supports a general disposition to care for and protect innocent victims of violence. Human beings are thus inclined to feel moral disgust in response to violence that harms the innocent. Sapolsky himself expresses his liberal moral disgust with gun violence in the United States. He explains how the insular cortex activates when someone bites in rancid food, which induces a reflexive spitting out of the food, gagging, and perhaps vomiting. He then explains how the insula also mediates visceral responses to immoral violence:
". . . this is visceral, not just metaphorically visceral--for example, when I heard about the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre, 'feeling sick to my stomach' wasn't a mere figure of speech. When I imagined the reality of the murder of twenty first-graders and the six adults protecting them, I felt nauseous. The insula not only prompts the stomach to purge itself of toxic food; it prompts the stomach to purge the reality of a nightmarish event" (561).Surely, many people have felt the same sickening moral disgust in response to the recent Las Vegas massacre; and many liberals will be motivated by this moral disgust to renew their proposals for tougher gun control laws. To counter this, conservatives will have to make rational arguments about how gun control laws don't work to stop such gun violence and about the importance of the Second Amendment in protecting the right to bear arms, even though this has the unfortunate effect of allowing some disturbed individuals to misuse their guns as Stephen Paddock did.
Here's a video of Sapolsky claiming that moral disgust is just bad evolution:
"If it makes you puke, you must rebuke" is Sapolsky's scornful way of characterizing Leon Kass's argument for the "wisdom of repugnance" (454). Or as Sapolsky says, "one day the neurons that help make you puke are suddenly involved in running the president's bioethics panel" (569). He has a great time poking fun at Kass's observation that he finds it repugnant when people display the "catlike activity" of licking ice cream cones in public (445). (Links to my long series of posts on Kass can be found here). Even if it's only conservatives like Kass who feel morally disgusted by people who lick ice cream cones in public, there's plenty of evidence that liberals feel morally disgusted by a wide range of conduct that violates the sacred values of liberalism.
Social psychologists have also shown through experiments that liberals are motivated by their fear of death to think more like conservatives (Nail et al., 2009). Reminding people of their own mortality and of the 9/11 terrorist attack increased support for President George W. Bush, both among conservatives and among liberals (Landau et al., 2004). This might explain why both liberal and conservative congressmen supported Bush's Patriot Act in 2001 and the American invasions of Afganistan and Iraq. By contrast, libertarians consistently opposed Bush's policies as threatening liberty, perhaps because libertarians feel a great passion for liberty and less fear of death.
Sapolsky is either silent about this research, or he is selective in his reporting of it, because it contradicts his story about politics as a battle of the rational liberals against the emotional conservatives.
Here's an example of his selective reporting. The article by Nail et al. (2009) is entitled "Threat Causes Liberals to Think Like Conservatives." But Sapolsky's reports it this way:
"Related to this is 'terror-management theory,' which suggests that conservatism is psychologically rooted in a pronounced fear of death; supporting this is the finding that priming people to think about their mortality makes them more conservative" (452).He then observes: "Fear, anxiety, the terror of mortality--it must be a drag being right-wing."
He is careful to hide from his readers the fact that liberals have been shown to be motivated by fear of death just like conservatives.
Fear, anxiety, the terror of mortality--it must be a drag being either right-wing or left-wing.
Chapman, H. A., et al. 2009. "In Bad Taste: Evidence for the Oral Origins of Moral Disgust." Science 323: 1222-26.
Graham, J., J. Haidt, and B. Nosek. 2009. "Liberals and Conservatives Rely on Different Sets of Moral Foundations." Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 96:1029-46.
Greene, Joshua. 2013. Moral Tribes: Emotion, Reason, and the Gap Between Us and Them. New York: Penguin Press.
Haidt, Jonathan. 2012. The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion. New York: Pantheon Books.
Inbar, Yoel, David Al Pizarro, Paul Bloom. 2011. "Disgusting Smells Cause Decreased Liking of Gay Men." Emotion 12: 23-27.
Iyer, Ravi, et al. 2012. "Understanding Libertarian Morality: The Psychological Dispositions of Self-Identified Libertarians." PLOS ONE 7: e42366.
Landau, Mark J., et al. 2004. "Deliver Us From Evil: The Effects of Mortality Salience and Reminders of 9/11 on Support for President George W. Bush." Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin 30: 1136-50.
Moretti, Laura, and Giuseppe di Pellegrino. 2010. "Disgust Selectively Modulates Reciprocal Fairness in Economic Interactions." Emotion 10: 169-180.
Nail, Paul R., et al. 2009. "Threat Causes Liberals to Think Like Conservatives." Journal of Experimental Social Psychology 45: 901-907.
Nussbaum, Martha. 2004. Hiding From Humanity: Disgust, Shame, and the Law. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Petrescu, Dragos C., and Brian Parkinson. 2014. "Incidental Disgust Increases Adherence to Left-Wing Economic Attitudes." Social Justice Research 27: 464-86.
Rozin, Paul, Jonathan Haidt, and Katrina Fincher. 2009. "From Oral to Moral." Science 323: 1179-80.
Sanfey, Alan G., et al. 2003. "The Neural Basis of Economic Decision-Making in the Ultimatum Game." Science 300: 1755-58.
Sapolsky, Robert. 2017. Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst. New York: Penguin Press.
Scott, Sydney, Yoel Inbar, and Paul Rozin. 2016. "Evidence for Absolute Moral Opposition to Genetically Modified Food in the United States." Perspectives on Psychological Science 11: 315-24.