Perpetrator Disgust: A Morally Destructive Emotion

Ditte Marie Munch-Jurisic

Publikation: Bidrag til bog/antologi/rapportBidrag til bog/antologiForskningpeer review


In genocide studies, as well as in literary and cinematic representations of mass atrocity, scholars and artists have been concerned with soldiers who experience a physiological and emotional breakdown while committing atrocities. These reactions often resemble disgust responses: perpetrators feel nausea; they convulse and sometimes vomit. A similar phenomenon is evident even years after the events. In the course of filming the last scene of his documentary, The Act of Killing, director Joshua Oppenheimer captured such an instance on film. While revisiting one of his old killing sites, Anwar Congo, a perpetrator during the anti-Communist purges in mid-1960s Indonesia and the central subject of the film, suddenly begins to convulse and retch. The phenomenon of perpetrator disgust raises fundamental questions about human nature and human morality. Many commentators were quick to suggest that Anwar Congo’s disgust indicated a sense of remorse and guilt regarding his actions. Similarly, many philosophical and psychological theories have placed high hopes in the moral value of disgust, interpreting the emotion as an embodied form of moral resistance and, as such, an important source of moral judgment and potential moral action. From this perspective, some argue that the disgust displayed by perpetrators is proof of an instinctual human morality and that human beings are born with a natural aversion toward killing. We might ask: does this disgust represent the body’s own attempt to say “no,” to revolt in moral protest? In this chapter, I will argue against such a hopeful view. Far from being a reliable or effective source of moral judgment, disgust is easily manipulated and mobilized in the service of harmful, discriminatory, even genocidal policies. I begin by outlining what I call the “moral view” of disgust. A range of dominant interpretations in both genocide studies and philosophy maintain that disgust responses have an important moral potential because they provide the agent with an embodied form of moral perception that can or should guide moral action. This view is challenged both by recent empirical evidence on disgust and by a number of skeptical voices from philosophy who argue that disgust is an unreliable moral emotion because it distorts moral judgment. Moreover, several genocide scholars have argued that the perpetrators’ disgust is utterly non-moral.

TitelEmotions and Mass Atrocity : Philosophical and Theoretical Explorations
RedaktørerThomas Brudholm, Johannes Lang
Antal sider20
ForlagCambridge University Press
ISBN (Trykt)9781107127739
ISBN (Elektronisk)9781316563281
StatusUdgivet - 2018

Citer dette