Spring 2017

Susan Edgerton

Educating Disgust: A Preliminary Survey

by Susan Edgerton, Ph.D.

This writing marks the beginning of my work for a sabbatical leave in Spring 2019. My general interests are primarily in environmental issues and education. For my sabbatical, I am specifically focused on education of the emotion disgust. There is a tendency to think of our primary emotions – happiness, sadness, fear, anger, surprise, and disgust – as just feelings we have and that we have little control over. However, with just a little thought we realize that our emotional responses change as we grow older – in other words, they become educated much the same as do our powers of reason. That suggests that emotions are not entirely separate from our powers of reason, even as they sidestep or dodge rational thought at times. From my reading so far, I have found that there has been less scholarly attention devoted to the emotion of disgust than there has been for happiness, sadness/melancholia, fear and anger. The specific ways disgust is educated is embedded in much of the new literature but is not the focus of those studies. My effort will be to translate and synthesize educating disgust from the literature about disgust.

Around the turn of the twenty-first century, several book-length studies of disgust appeared (most of which are in the bibliography below). Prior to that I found few such studies, especially when compared to the literature for the other fundamental emotions–happiness, sadness, fear, anger, and surprise. Of the early writings on disgust, most cited are Aurel Kolnai’s 1929 Disgust, Mary Douglas’s 1966 Purity and Danger: An Analysis of Concepts of Pollution and Taboo, and Julia Kristeva’s 1982 Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection.

From my reading thus far, I have a general sense that among our basic emotions, disgust, as “the most embodied and visceral of emotions” (Miller, 1997), might be the most intractable—the most impervious to efforts to re-educate beyond early impressions. If this is so, implications for educators who wish to foster compassion and connection to others and the natural environment are significant. I hope to explore this literature toward such understanding during my sabbatical. In particular, I hope to inform my teaching practice as it regards environmental justice, nature of human nature, cross cultural and social justice studies, and curriculum theory. This might involve classroom explorations of our own disgust sensitivities and triggers as well as inclusion of disgust studies as content. Clearly, disgust is part of our human nature. Clinical studies have also linked disgust sensitivity to attitudes about human differences and sexuality – both key topics in social and environmental justice studies. Finally, if disgust study proves significant to my own pedagogical practice, it will be of interest for the K-12 teachers in my curriculum theory class as well.

Conceptual Foundations

The word disgust comes from the Latin gustus, related to English words such as gustatory and gusto – having to do with taste, ingestion, taking food into the body. Disgust came to signify the revulsion toward something distasteful, odious, revolting, nauseating, and eventually included moral revulsion. The evolutionary value of disgust is clear: we reject as food or proximity that which might injure or kill us. As one of the fundamental human emotions, disgust is educable as well as instinctive—our emotions have cognitive content and are fundamental to our knowledge about the world (see, e.g., Nussbaum, 2001). An educated disgust, for example, has learned to cultivate tastes toward foods that were previously rejected such as strong-smelling cheeses. An educated disgust may also learn to associate feelings of repugnance toward others—human, other animals, plants, and more. The literature on disgust has much to say about the consequences and implications for this associative learning. Moral disgust is an impediment to compassion (Nussbaum, 1999, 2001, 2004, 2013), and yet some degree of it might be foundational to developing an ability to legitimately discriminate between the good and the bad (Miller, 1997).

Disgust, according to Nietszche (cited in Menninghaus, 2003), is a natural consequence of coming to know. It is a part of what he calls the “tragedy of knowledge,” though enlightenment requires, he suggests, ultimate transcendence of disgust. For Kant (1790), and later Norbert Elias (1939), and later still William Miller (1997), one goal of education is the cultivation of disgust as a “civilizing force.” To become disgusted is to develop taste, to become discriminating. We learn to avoid that which is disgusting (uncivilized, base). In contrast to these assertions, Martha Nussbaum argues that disgust, learned through acculturation and association, is often irrational and sometimes dangerous. Our disgust reactions with regard to social situations, she suggests, can provide either a rationalization for violence, or for removing ourselves from disagreeable situations, fostering antisocial, or at least a-social, cynicism.

Nussbaum, in her paper entitled “‘Secret Sewers of Vice’: Disgust, Bodies, and the Law” (1999), writes:

Disgust is a powerful emotion in the lives of most human beings. It shapes our  intimacies and provides much of the structure of our daily routine, as we wash our bodies, seek privacy for  urination and defecation, cleanse ourselves of offending odors with toothbrush and mouthwash, sniff our armpits when nobody is looking, check in the mirror to make sure that no  conspicuous snot is caught in our nose-hairs. In many ways our social relations, too, are structured by the disgusting and our multifarious attempts to ward it off. Ways of dealing with repulsive animal substances such as feces, corpses, and spoiled food are pervasive sources of social custom. And most societies teach the avoidance of certain groups of people as physically disgusting, bearers of a contamination that the healthy element of society must keep at bay.

Nussbaum acknowledges the underlying evolutionary basis of disgust but argues that this emotion is much more than a biological inheritance. Our disgust reactions, she insists, are culturally bound, just as anger and indignation are responses that differ for people with differing cultural and environmental contexts. But the difference between disgust and indignation, she argues, is that disgust provides a rationale for removing oneself from a context, for distancing oneself from the offending person or object, while indignation more often calls for argument and action. Disgust is reserved for that to which one feels absolutely other. Indignation is a response to one who is worthy of one’s angry consideration. As such, Nussbaum warns that the appearance of disgust should signal a warning to one so afflicted to reflect deeply on its source, and that disgustingness should never be a player in the consideration of law or policy-making.

In contrast, William Miller (1997), drawing on the work of sociologist Norbert Elias (1978), argues in The Anatomy of Disgust that disgust is a characteristic of all civilized peoples. He maintains that disgust is often enough a reasonable response to human behavior and being, a signal for distinguishing acceptable social behavior from unacceptable. A significant difference between the arguments of Elias and Miller is that while Elias argues that the development of lowered thresholds of disgust were followed by a refinement in social behavior and a diminution of aggression, Miller reverses that order. That is, according to Miller, the evolution of ever more social sanctions for human interactions around the body gave rise to ever more internalized disgust associations. Similar to Foucault’s (1997) description of the ways we are trained to increasingly discipline ourselves, Miller suggests that what was once enforced by public humiliation and shame gave way over time to internalized disgust reactions and, hence, self-censorship. And while Foucault is implicitly critical of internalized repression and self-surveillance, it seems to be, at least on this account, quite all right for Miller.

Evolution of greater numbers of disgust associations may well reduce public aggression and violence toward those who comply with these social sanctions, as Miller and Elias suggest. However, disgust associations with skin color, gender, sexual orientation and other such attributes are another matter, as Nussbaum argues (1999) and Miller acknowledges (1997). There are countless cases of violence committed on the basis of disgust, much of which falls under the category of hate crime. Despite that designation, so powerful are cultural sanctions based on this emotion, disgust has been successfully used as a defense in court for violent crimes against homosexuals (Nussbaum 2004, pp 132-3).

Cognitive Content of Disgust

Clearly, debate around the function of disgust has implications for educational thought around issues of diversity and difference, racism, sexism, and homophobia. If, as both Nussbaum and Miller assert, our emotions have cognitive content, then the curriculum must serve in some way to educate our disgust. What is the cognitive content of disgust; from whence does it come? As mentioned earlier, disgust is etymologically related to the word gustatory. “The term ‘disgust,’ in its simplest sense, means something offensive to the taste.” Charles Darwin continues:

It is curious how readily this feeling is excited by anything unusual in the appearance, odour, or nature of our food. In Tierra del Fuego a native touched with his finger some cold preserved meat which I was eating at our bivouac, and plainly showed utter disgust at its softness; whilst I felt utter disgust at my food being touched by a naked savage, though his hands did not appear dirty. A smear of soup on a man’s beard looks disgusting, though there is of course nothing disgusting in the soup itself. I presume that this follows from the strong association in our minds between the sight of food, however circumstanced, and the idea of eating it (1872/1998, p.255).

Disgust is distinct, however, from distaste, an assertion that is supported by clinical research. For example, the very same smell elicits different disgust reactions from different individuals depending on prior conception of the object smelled. Subjects sniff decay odor from two different vials, both of which in reality contain the same substance; they are told that one vial contains feces and the other contains cheese. Those who think that they are sniffing cheese usually like the smell; those who think they are sniffing feces find it repellant and unpleasant. . . Even if subjects are convinced that ground dried cockroach tastes like sugar, they still refuse to eat it, or say it tastes revolting if they do (Rozin and Fallon, 1987).

Nor is danger synonymous with disgust; disgust can arise even when there is no rational reason to feel endangered. Dangerous items (e.g. poisonous mushrooms) are tolerated in the environment, so long as they will not be ingested; disgusting items are not so tolerated. When danger is removed, the dangerous item will be ingested: detoxified poisonous mushrooms are acceptable. But disgusting items remain disgusting even when all danger is removed (cited in Nussbaum). So, for example, many would not eat from a bedpan even if they knew that it had been sterilized. This particular example also demonstrates what Paul Rozin and April Fallon (1987) call laws of “sympathetic magic,” in particular that of contagion: “things that have been in contact continue ever afterwards to act on one another” (citing Frazer, p. 30).

Nussbaum and others also note that disgust concerns the borders of the body. For example, one’s bodily fluids are not disgusting until they are outside the body, even if the body in question is one’s own. One is disgusted, for example, by drinking from a glass into which they themselves have spit, even though they are not uncomfortable about saliva in their own mouths. With Julia Kristeva (1982) we can speculate that the boundaries of the body represent the boundaries between life and death. She refers to the sensation this provokes as the abject, which is, she asserts, activated by such sights as feces and corpses, sights and smells that disgust. Elias located such disgust reactions in literature about manners that dates back to 1558. From Della Casa’s Galateo he finds, “You should not offer your handkerchief to anyone unless it has been freshly washed. . . . Nor is it seemly, after wiping your nose, to spread out your handkerchief and peer into it as if pearls and rubies might have fallen out of your head” (cited in Elias, 1978, p.145).

But even as disgust reaches beyond the sensual to the cognitive, it clearly has an especially intimate connection to the senses. Nussbaum describes it as more visceral than other emotions. She writes, “no other emotion forces such concrete sensual descriptions on its object” (Nussbaum, 1997). Listen, for example, to Hitler in Mein Kampf:

Was there any form of filth or profligacy, particularly in cultural life, without at least one Jew involved in it? If you cut even cautiously into such an abscess, you found, like a maggot in a rotting body, often dazzled by the sudden light — a kike! (cited in Nussbaum, 1999)”

Women’s bodies, especially older women’s bodies, have long been a target for the imagery of disgust. In the 1971 cult film Harold and Maude, the priest, Father Finnegan, erupted with a lurid description of the young Harold’s “co-mingling” with 79-year-old Maude. Father Finnegan notes that her “withered flesh, sagging breasts and flabby buttocks . . . frankly and candidly makes me want to vomit,” an expression of disgust as moral outrage that is both misogynist and ageist. As a presidential candidate, Donald Trump repeatedly referred to women as disgusting. Hillary Clinton, Megyn Kelly, Rosie O’Donnell, and Carly Fiorina were all victims of his vitriol. “There is certainly a lot to be said about the role played by appeals to disgust in the oppression of homosexuality, and about the links between anti-Semitism, misogyny, and homophobia” (Nussbaum 1999). Miller’s suggestion that disgust is antithetical to love more so than is hatred might help us begin to better understand the connection of disgust with such violations and violence. He writes, “disgust opposes love . . . We can love and hate the same object at the same time, but we cannot love and be disgusted by the same object in any non-deviant, non-masochistic sense of love. Disgust does not have a pleasant warm side like contempt. Disgust is what revolts, what repels; it is never benign. Unless it is pardoned, excused, or overcome by desire, disgust terminates love, while contempt often maintains and sustains it” (1997, p. 33).

In addition to questions about human relations affected by disgust, other educationally significant questions emerge. How do our disgust reactions relate to our sense of, and relationship to, the non-human natural world? When the natural world intrudes into our daily living space in all its slimy, oozy, viscous, greasy, life and death splendor, we often feel disgust. For Susan Miller (2004), that disgust has to do with broken boundaries:

Nature routinely challenges us with regard to matters of personal identity and self-boundary. We labor to keep ourselves apart from nature in certain of its forms, to say we are different from this odorous animal, that moldy vegetation, this fetid swampland. But our materials and many of our mechanisms are those of nature’s other life-forms. We, like they, are stuff inside membranes; we, like they, are bags of matter within a skin that is sensitive to penetration and rupture (p. 47).

Michel Serres (1995) points toward another way that disgust functions in shaping our relationships to the environment. We “mark our territory,” much as animals who mark by urinating. We perform a kind of defecation on objects in order to either acquire or keep them. He writes, “This . . . excremental origin of the right of ownership seems to me a cultural source of what we call pollution” (p. 33). He compares it to the act of one person spitting in the communal salad in order to render it disgusting and unsuitable for all others. It has seemed to me a plausible explanation for the abandon with which we pollute our own lands. This description appeals to our sense of disgust as a way of shaming us into recognizing the base level of our relationship to nature.

Preliminary Questions and Speculation about Disgust and Pedagogical Praxis

Appeal to disgust as a pedagogical strategy or approach is, I believe, a dangerous way to go in general. Our disgust reactions are unreliable indicators of actual danger. And, as the opposite of love, disgust invites the activities of hatred – violence, oppression, and ostracization. When it does not inspire hatred, disgust serves to blind us to our own otherness, our own culpability in the human drama, our relationship to the object of our disgust, whether it be a slimy slug, a violent criminal, a farm animal, or someone sexually different from ourselves. Unlike anger or indignation, disgust drives an attempt to set ourselves above and beyond the human experience. However, I have seen appeals to disgust in documentary films – for example, about eating meat raised in Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (what Wendell Berry refers to as animal concentration camps)—that might be precisely the trigger needed to alter consciousness about a deeply cultural taken-for-granted practice (Friedrich, 2003; Echternkamp and Wilcha, 2007).

Appeal to disgust as a way of refining one’s ability to wisely discriminate is only one side of the question regarding education. Another side aims to address the distortions already in place from prior disgust education. How is that to be countered, re-educated? What exactly is the relationship between the visceral, sensual experience of disgust and the experience of moral disgust? Does this relationship create exceptional challenges for the prospect of an evolving disgust education?

There is clinical evidence for a correlation between disgust sensitivity and political orientation. Those with greater disgust sensitivity tend to be more politically conservative than those with less disgust sensitivity (Hibbing, et. al., 2013; Inbar, et. al., 2009). Conservatism in these studies most often manifests as intolerance around sexuality – for example, homosexuality and abortion – but it extends to other beliefs and attitudes as well. The intersection between what is in some measure biological with environmental (educated) influence should not be interpreted as in any way deterministic. As Smith, et. al. warn:

[T]he proper interpretation of the findings reported here is not that biology causes politics or that politics causes biology but that certain political orientations at some unspecified point become housed in our biology, with meaningful political consequences. . . . [B]iologically instantiated orientations are certainly changeable but likely are more difficult to change than orientations lacking such instantiation (2011, pp. 8-9).

Pedagogy conceived with an awareness of the connections between biological and moral disgust, and between moral disgust and various degrees of tolerance and openness to difference, must recognize the relative intransigence of attitudes grounded in disgust. Such a praxis will surely require reflexive analysis on the part of teacher and student.

A Personal Note

The Meaning of Life
by Nancy Fitzgerald

There is a moment just before
a dog vomits when its stomach
heaves dry, pumping what’s deep
inside the belly to the mouth.

If you are fast you can grab
her by the collar and shove her
out the door, avoid the slimy bile,
hunks of half chewed food
from landing on the floor.

You must be quick, decisive,
controlled, and if you miss
the cue and the dog erupts
en route, you must forgive
her quickly and give yourself
to scrubbing up the mess.

Most of what I have learned
in life leads back to this.

In this poem, disgust puts the poet on alert. I heard this poem one morning as I was preparing my breakfast. It was recited by Garrison Keillor on NPR’s ‘Writer’s Almanac.’ At the precise moment he stopped reading, my sweet little bear of a dog, Jackson, began heaving his just eaten breakfast. Not only was it too late for me to get him outside, it was also too late for me to prevent him from having his breakfast all over again. My enthusiasm for my own breakfast was seriously dampened. I was disgusted. Why? He had only just eaten; the food was undigested and surely as nutritious as before. It was sensible for him to eat it again. Perhaps my disgust stems from one of the many distortions brought to me by my own education. Disgust is complicated. *

* I beg the reader’s forgiveness for my evocation of disgusting images and smells. With William Miller I believe that, “[w]hile one need not be boring to describe boredom, nor confusing to describe confusion, it just may be that the so-called fallacy of imitative form is not completely fallacious when it comes to disgust” (1997, p. ix).

Biographical Note:

Susan Edgerton is Professor of Interdisciplinary Studies at Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts where she teaches curriculum theory, the nature of human nature, introduction to cross-cultural and social justice studies, and environmental justice. She was a professor in the education department from 2004 to 2015 and director or co-director of the MCLA honors program from Fall 2009 through Spring 2018.  Susan previously taught at University of Illinois-Chicago and Western Michigan University, and has been a visiting professor at the University of British Columbia and at York University. She is author of Translating the Curriculum: Multiculturalism into Cultural Studies (1996) which received an American Educational Studies Association “Critics Choice” award for 1997, co-editor with Gunilla Holm, Toby Daspit, and Paul Farber of Imagining the Academy: Higher Education and Popular Culture (2005), and author of numerous book chapters and journal articles. She served as Secretary to Division B Curriculum for the American Educational Research Association from 1999-2001 and was a co-organizer and the first program chair for the Curriculum and Pedagogy Conference. Current interests include environmental sustainability and justice, education, and reclaiming the commons.


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