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Self-ownership and disgust: why compulsory body part redistribution gets under our skin


The self-ownership thesis asserts, roughly, that agents own their minds and bodies in the same way that they can own extra-personal property. One common strategy for defending the self-ownership thesis is to show that it accords with our intuitions about the wrongness of various acts involving the expropriation of body parts (e.g., Robert Nozick’s case of compulsory eyeball redistribution and Judith Jarvis Thomson’s Violinist). We challenge this line of defense. We argue that disgust explains our resistance to these sorts of cases and present results from an original psychological experiment in support of this hypothesis. We argue further that learning that disgust is responsible for pro-self-ownership intuitions should reduce our confidence in those intuitions. After considering and rejecting some prominent “debunking” arguments predicated on disgust’s evolutionary history, we provide alternative reasons for thinking that disgust is not a reliable source of moral judgments. Rejecting the reliability of disgust as a mechanism for producing moral beliefs coheres with our considered judgments about (1) the general kinds of considerations that are morally relevant and (2) a range of particular moral problems.

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  1. See, e.g., Nozick (1974), Wheeler (1980), Vallentyne (1997), Mack (2002a, b) and Otsuka (2003). For objections, see, e.g., Cohen (1995) and Lippert-Rasmussen (2008).

  2. See Vallentyne et al. (2005, 203–204).

  3. See ibid; see also Nozick (1974, 172). See Otsuka (2003, 15) for a defense of less than full self-ownership.

  4. On the last point, see Vallentyne et al. (2005, 208).

  5. See Arthur (2009), Christman (1991, 40), Cohen (1995, 243–244) and Wolff (1991, 7–8).

  6. Ibid.

  7. McFall v. Shimp 10 Pa. D. & C. 3d 90 (1978).

  8. Ibid., 135.

  9. Ibid., 226.

  10. Harris (1975).

  11. Ibid., 86–87.

  12. Chadwick (1989), for example, notes that views that deny individuals ownership rights over their bodies (specifically their kidneys) are subject to the objection that they can, in principle, permit the survival lottery.

  13. Choe and Min (2011).

  14. Balzer and Jacobs (2011) as well as Smith et al. (2011) replicated the effect for gay marriage using an alternative, physiological measure of disgust.

  15. But see David and Olatunji (2011). Instead of using hypnosis, they used evaluative conditioning to imbue arbitrary words with disgust-eliciting potential. While this did lead participants to view subsequent moral transgressions as more disgusting, it did not lead them to view them as more morally wrong.

  16. When asked why they thought the ostensibly well-meaning student in this vignette acted wrongly for trying to make the discussion appealing to both students and faculty, participants made claims like, “It just seems like he’s up to something,” and “It just seems so weird and disgusting.” (Wheatley and Haidt 2005, 783).

  17. Ibid., 969.

  18. See Pizarro et al. (2011) for a brief discussion of the different ways moral judgment may be tied to disgust. Although disgust does not normally cause people to condemn an action they would have otherwise approved of, it does not follow that it never does so. As we suggest above, we take the fact that disgust can often increase condemnation to be good evidence that in cases where there are competing considerations at play (e.g., self-ownership and the prevention of bad outcomes), disgust can tilt the balance in favor of condemnation. We are grateful to an anonymous referee for raising this issue.

  19. Some of these effects were limited to participants who were identified as high in “Private Body Consciousness” (i.e., participants who regularly paid special attention to their internal states).

  20. Eskine et al. (2011) and Moretti and di Pellegrino (2010). Further studies have also found evidence for a causal connection between disgust and negative attitudes towards groups such as unfamiliar foreigners (Faulkner et al. 2004) and gay men (Inbar et al. 2012).

  21. We lack the space for a detailed treatment of how to individuate psychological kinds, but our argument rests on the assumption that two psychological states are likely to be of the same kind if they are triggered by relevantly similar stimuli and have relevantly similar cognitive and behavioral consequences.

  22. For a review of the relevant evidence, see Tybur et al. (2013) and Kelly (2011, chapter 2).

  23. Tybur et al. (2009).

  24. Park et al. (2012).

  25. DeBruine et al. (2010).

  26. In fact, Tybur et al. (2009, 117) explicitly argue that the most recent version of Haidt et al.’s (1994) Disgust Scale—Olatunji et al. (2007)’s “The Disgust Scale-R”—“largely reflects sensitivity to pathogen disgust” and that pathogen disgust is the “construct [that] has been measured using existing measures of disgust sensitivity.” The fourth study from Tybur et al. (2009) provides empirical support for these claims.

  27. Fessler and Haley (2006).

  28. Sherman et al. (2001).

  29. Ibid.

  30. Ibid.

  31. For ease of interpretation, we reverse coded the second dependent variable prior to running statistical analyses. This means that, for purposes of statistical testing, a rating of 7 represented full agreement with a statement of the form, “It was morally wrong for Kit’s doctor to take Marvin’s kidney without his consent in order to save Kit’s life,” and a rating of 1 represented full agreement with a statement of the form, “It was morally right for Kit’s doctor to take Marvin’s kidney without his consent in order to save Kit’s life.”

  32. Tybur et al. (2009).

  33. All three subscales of the Three Domain Disgust Scale demonstrated acceptable reliability; Cronbach’s alpha for pathogen disgust, sexual disgust, and moral disgust were .85, .86, and .93, respectively.

  34. Tybur et al. (2009).

  35. Adult participants (212 men, 304 women, 2 unidentified, M age = 31.7 years, age range: 18–80 years) were recruited online through Amazon’s Mechanical Turk ( for a survey on “Questions about Morality.” Of 518 participants, 515 reported living in the United States, two reported living in the United Kingdom, and one reported living in an unspecified country other than the United States, United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, Germany, South Africa, or India. Participants were compensated $0.50 upon completion of the survey.

  36. With the exception of the Chi square tests reported in footnotes 43 and 44, all hypotheses were tested using multiple regression analysis. The full regression model included eleven predictor variables: one representing the effect of invasiveness (invasive vs. non-invasive), two representing the effect of item stolen (kidney, blood, or breast milk), two representing the interaction of invasiveness with item stolen, three representing people’s disgust sensitivity scores in each of the three domains (pathogen, sexual, and moral), and three representing the interaction of each of the three disgust sensitivity scores with invasiveness. The effects of item stolen and the interaction of item stolen with invasiveness were obtained by examining the change in explained variance due to removing the dummy variables associated with each effect from the full model. The standardized regression weights reported for each of the other predictors are those associated with the variables in the full model. Categorical variables were coded using unweighted effects coding.

  37. χ2 (1, N = 518) = 49.97, p < .001.

  38. The invasiveness of the self-ownership violation also had an effect on how frequently participants commended the self-ownership violation (i.e., how frequently their rating landed on the “right” side of the scale), χ2 (1, N = 518) = 52.67, p < .001. While only 25.0 % of participants assigned to the invasive conditions commended the self-ownership violation, 56.4 % of participants assigned to the non-invasive conditions commended it. The 7.9 % of participants in the invasive conditions and 18.8 % of participants in the non-invasive conditions whose rating landed on the midpoint of the scale are naturally interpreted as having believed that the theft was permissible but not necessarily right.

  39. β = 0.339, t(506) = 8.65, p < .001. Where scores closer to 1 reflect greater commendation and scores closer to 7 reflect greater condemnation, the covariate-adjusted mean in the invasive conditions was 5.13 (SE = 0.12), while the covariate-adjusted mean in the non-invasive conditions was 3.65 (SE = 0.12).

  40. F(2, 506) = 33.88, p < .001. The two dummy variables associated with item stolen were recoded using dummy coding to allow for pairwise comparisons. Pairwise comparisons revealed that participants believed stealing a kidney (M adj. = 5.22, SE = 0.15) was worse than stealing blood (M adj. = 4.44, SE = 0.15), p < .001, and that stealing blood was worse than stealing breast milk (M adj. = 3.52, SE = 0.14), p < .001.

  41. F(2, 506) = .037, p = .964.

  42. β = 0.005, t(506) = 0.12, p = .903.

  43. In other words, the main effect of invasiveness was qualified by an interaction with pathogen disgust sensitivity, β = 0.095, t(506) = 2.121, p = .034. Simple slopes analyses (Aiken and West 1991) revealed that pathogen disgust sensitivity interacted with invasiveness such that invasiveness had a greater effect among those who were high (+1 SD) in pathogen disgust sensitivity, β = 0.434, p < .001, than among those who were low (−1 SD) in disgust sensitivity, β = 0.243, p < .001.

  44. β = −0.018, t(506) = −0.37, p = .715.

  45. β = −0.029, t(506) = −0.60, p = .550.

  46. β = 0.132, t(506) = 3.07, p = .002.

  47. β = −0.061, t(506) = −1.41, p = .159.

  48. 71.8 % of participants in the invasive/blood condition judged it wrong to take the blood, and 49.4 % of participants in the invasive/breast milk condition judged it wrong to take the breast milk.

  49. Even if one alleges that the loss of a body part or the extra sleep induced by the drug is interference in itself, note that Marvin and his counterparts are drugged and lose their body parts in both the invasive and non-invasive cases.

  50. It’s not clear if Cohen himself thinks that hostility to interference can completely explain our intuitions. However, he does put it forth as an important explanation and our results suggest that, at a minimum, his account needs to be supplemented with ours.

  51. Ibid., 97.

  52. Ibid., 98–99.

  53. Ibid., 174–175.

  54. See Street (2006) and Kahane (2011).

  55. Kelly (2011).

  56. Plakias (2013, 6). Berker (2009, 320). Plakias attributes this kind of debunking argument to Daniel Kelly. Berker finds a similar style of argument in the work of Josh Greene and Peter Singer.

  57. One might worry that, since Horberg et al. pooled the latter two items with two items involving sex, people’s greater condemnation of this group of acts is primarily attributable to people’s greater condemnation of the two sexual items rather than the two non-sexual, morally neutral items. Yet item analyses do not support this claim. In fact, some of the most reliable effects of disgust were found for the non-sexual items. Horberg, personal communication.

  58. See Mill (1991, chapter 4).


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For their helpful comments and suggestions on drafts of this paper, we owe thanks to Andrew R. A. Conway, Joshua Gert, Bill Glod, Chris Tucker, and an anonymous referee for this journal.

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Correspondence to Christopher Freiman.

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The authors wish to note that the order of authorship was determined alphabetically and that the authors’ contributions to the article were equal.

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Freiman, C., Lerner, A. Self-ownership and disgust: why compulsory body part redistribution gets under our skin. Philos Stud 172, 3167–3190 (2015).

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  • Self-ownership
  • Consequentialism
  • Moral psychology
  • Disgust