Moral Disgust

By DAN R. STIVER

As I watched television throughout the day Wednesday, January 6, riveted and horrified at the scenes unfolding before my eyes and the eyes of the world, I kept thinking that this was a 9/11 moment, one which will be remembered and whose scenes will be viewed by my grandchildren’s grandchildren. It did not have the same loss of life as 9/11, although five dead, including a Capitol Police officer, in an assault on the Capitol is awful, but as others pointed out it represented an attack on our country, on Congress in the Capitol while they were conducting some of the most important business of their careers, not by foreign terrorists but by domestic, our own people. It was unprecedented, where one has to go back to the War of 1812 for a similar attack on the Capitol–but never one instigated by the president of the United States, with people waving images of the Bible and the Confederate flag. 

Dan Stiver

And then I was struck by recalling the several talks about moral disgust that Tom Copeland, professor of psychology and counseling at Hardin-Simmons University, and I have given over the past few years in Abilene. When we first gave those talks, I focused on the danger of moral disgust and that it was best to be avoided. My concern was that to disagree is one thing; to be viscerally disgusted, nauseated, by the other person is quite another, which makes constructive dialogue almost impossible. My thought was that it is like anger. Anger is seldom managed well; righteous and appropriate anger is rare. Moral disgust, like anger, must be handled with care. For instance, disgust at actions can be called for, but it does not forego, in my view, my calling as a Christian to continue to love people, even those who are seen as enemies. It also means that, as Jesus indicated, we are to look first at ourselves. For myself, I usually find that to be difficult and painful. Moral disgust is thus often, if not typically, misguided. Even when it might be appropriate, like anger, how it is expressed is as crucial as that it is expressed, and it is usually not handled well. 

These dangers were on display Wednesday. Even as people respond with shock at Wednesday’s scenes, we should note that the attack on the Capitol was inspired by people who also had moral disgust at what they perceived to be great wrongs, however debatable, which moved them to reckless and, probably, regrettable actions as many now face prosecution and the moral disgust of a nation directed at them, even now from leaders, even the president, whom they would have seen up till now as allies. They are examples of the danger of unjustified moral disgust. Their reaction was based on what Mitch McConnell, many judges, including Republican judges appointed by the president, and other Republican leaders, called unjustified, unsubstantiated, and disproven beliefs of fraud in the election.

Beliefs can be good or bad, capricious or whimsical. Beliefs that are based on good evidence, good sources, and good reasons, however, turn beliefs into knowledge! Not all beliefs are knowledge claims. Because of unwarranted and indefensible beliefs that led to disgust, people yesterday took action that could have involved peaceful and legal protests, but the way their disgust was expressed led to one of the worst debacles in our nation’s history. They violated the law, occupied the Capitol, threatened the lives even of some who supported their fraudulent claims, endangered the police even as they usually claim to back the blue, and led to the deaths of five people and who knows how many people going to prison. The attack on the Capitol represented moral disgust out of control. 

As I continued to reflect on the issue of moral disgust over the last few years, however, I realized that sometimes moral disgust is appropriate, even required. It is often unjustified, as we can see on the part of the rioters, but sometimes it is the only proper moral response. In other words, we have this moral capacity for a reason. If we’re not disgusted by some things, there probably is something wrong with us. Torture of children and the Holocaust come to mind. Such a reaction is powerful and can move us to do the hard work of justice that we might not otherwise do. We saw this play out before our eyes yesterday. Even long-time supporters of the president such as Mike Pence, Mitch McConnell, and Lindsay Graham, along with several in the administration around Trump who resigned, after standing by him through many other questionable actions, were moved to condemn the president’s and the rioters’ actions.

Therein lies the value of moral disgust, appropriate moral disgust. It can move us to action, to get us off center, to actually do something constructively different, to overcome deep resistance. In this case, a nation has overwhelmingly responded at a deep level. Wednesday may have been the equivalent of seeing children set upon by dogs and fire hoses in the civil rights movement in the sixties that moved a nation to undo horrible, dehumanizing laws that had prevailed for almost a century. 

The nation thus has a chance to let something, moral disgust, which often makes things worse, in this instance become a catalyst for reexamination and constructive change. But it will be difficult. For instance, I can hardly imagine the rethinking that Pence is undergoing, someone who sacrificed almost everything of his standards to stand by the president, yet the president not only publicly shamed him, but when Pence had his wife and daughter with him, the president incited rioters who reportedly in the Capitol were calling out, “Where is Pence,” in order to go after him, which frightened the Pences.

And indications are that not only did the president not try to help him, he expressed little concern for the Pences’ safety. In the midst of a pandemic, a broken economy, and the inception of a new administration—any one of which would be enough of a challenge on its own—such re-examination to respond appropriately to the historic shock of January 6 is yet another major demand for us as a nation. It would take a host of essays to spell out all of those ways, and we probably will not all agree on them, but the need and capacity to do that work is in part impelled by a visceral response to those images of January 6. Yes, moral disgust is often misguided and damaging, yet it is part of our moral repertoire. Sometimes it is called for—and January 6 was such a time.

Dan Stiver is a part-time professor of theology at Logsdon Seminary

4 comments

  • Thank you for these thoughtful and timely words. People of good will must come together to repair our republic and heal our divisions.

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  • Thank you very much for writing this. We need the thoughts and instruction of our faith leaders at this time, a time I’ll call the final crossroads for those who have clung to their belief in Donald Trump as a great political leader. I am guilty of feeling complete moral disgust for all who do not recognize this line-in-the-sand time to recapture their moral bearings before our constitutional democracy in these United States becomes a past-tense experiment in governing.

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  • Thank you for composing this. 2020 was disgraceful and this year is starting the same. Our nation is broken and Christians need to step up and be heard.

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  • Dan, as always I appreciate your insightful analysis of the insanity around us. Your theme of moral disgust has been the basis for several pieces I’ve written over the past couple of years. Understanding that moral disgust is innate helped me analyze my own feelings when I react with such passion to something I’m seeing or hearing.

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